Briana Bierschbach

It’s too late to change most people’s minds, but Maret Olson figured she could at least sign up a few volunteers.

It was Wednesday evening, and Olson and a dozen other women had gathered in a second-floor suite above the Denny’s on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to dial phone number after number — all to other women — to see if they could find a few people to pick up a three hour shift volunteering for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sometime in the next two weeks.

“Hi, is this Christine?” Olson asked.

“Hello, my name is Maret. I’m calling because I have you down as a Hillary supporter,” she said, repeating a script that was being recited across the room. “Is that correct?”

“Can I sign you up for a door-knocking shift sometime in the next two weeks?” Olson said. “Fantastic! When are you available?”

Though tonight marked a special occasion — it was Clinton’s 69th birthday, so Olson brought in a cake for campaign volunteers that said “Happy birthday,” with the signature “H” that’s the Clinton campaign logo — the effort to specifically target women voters has been a weekly routine for the local outpost of the Clinton effort, for good reason: Women could decide the outcome of the election.

Polls across the nation show potential for the largest gender gap in a presidential race in decades. A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight, a website that uses statistical analysis to predict elections, showed men favoring the Republican nominee Donald Trump by about 6 or 7 points — the typical level at which men tend to support the Republican presidential candidate.

But a massive gap emerges when you look at women voters. According to FiveThirtyEight, polls show Clinton with an average 20-point advantage among women. To put that into context, President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 victory was largely attributed to his popularity with women, a group he carried by 14 points.

But this hasn’t been a typical election — especially for women.

Clinton is the first female major party nominee in the nation’s history, and Trump has spent the last three weeks on the campaign trail explaining comments he made on an Access Hollywood video in 2005 about inappropriately touching and grabbing women, saying “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” Since then, nearly a dozen women have come out with their own allegations of sexual assault against Trump, and his comment in the last debate — calling Clinton a “nasty woman” — has turned into a popular Internet meme. Candidates are also spending much more time talking about women’s issues this year, from the economy and paid leave to the politics of abortion.

“I suspected the gender gap was going to be larger this year than it’s been, even with Obama. Hillary is a woman candidate speaking directly to women and talking about women’s issues,” said Leonie Huddy, who teaches political science with a focus on gender at State University of New York at Stony Brook. “But Donald Trump is definitely exacerbating these issues by adding his own special dynamic.”

Democrats rally suburban women

In Minnesota, Clinton’s lead among women voters is considerable. A recent poll by the Star Tribune showed 56 percent of women viewed Clinton favorably, compared to only 32 percent of women looking favorably on Trump. Local Democrats are hoping to leverage Clinton’s popularity among women voters to help candidates all the way down the ballot in Minnesota, particularly in competitive suburban areas.

Democrats are running two women candidates — Terri Bonoff and Angie Craig — in the competitive 3rd and 2nd Congressional Districts, not to mention dozens of women in the race to control the Minnesota Legislature. In addition to weekly phone banks across the state, Democrats and the Clinton campaign have held rallies in the suburbs targeting women candidates, bringing in surrogates like Gloria Steinem, Chelsea Clinton and Wendy Davis, the former Texas state senator who became famous after she filibustered restrictive abortion measures in her signature pink running shoes.

Pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood have also been more involved in Minnesota campaigns, raising more than $335,000 through an outside spending group by mid September. They’ve sent out mailers in competitive districts like St. Cloud, hailing DFL candidates like Dan Wolgamott and Zach Dorholt for protecting women’s reproductive rights.

Lauren Beecham, executive director of womenwinning, a political group that supports pro-choice women candidates, said they’ve seen a boost in volunteers this election cycle with Clinton on the ballot, but especially in the weeks after the Access Hollywood comments leaked.

“There’s this urgency that exists, that women know and they finally feel like they have this in their grasp, that it’s tangible that they’re about to make history,” Beecham said. “They are simultaneously uniting to make sure that they keep Donald Trump out of the White House. We are increasing the number of volunteers and people who come out to our get out the vote rallies.”

Republicans want to close the gap

Trump is still leading among men, but Republican operatives say the gap with female voters will close considerably as Election Day gets closer. That’s because many of Trump’s women supporters, they say, are less vocal than those who support Clinton.

Sheri Auclair has been one of the more outspoken Minnesota Trump supporters from the start, traveling to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland as a delegate earlier this year. A picture of her briefly went viral while she was there, after a photographer from the Associated Press snapped a picture of her proudly waving her arms, adorned in an American flag-printed shawl.

Auclair, who lives in Wayzata, is in the computer manufacturing industry and runs a business of about 500 employees with her husband. Initially, she was supporting Carly Fiorina as an outsider candidate with business background. But when things went downhill for Fiorina’s campaign, Auclair said she made the transition to Trump, the other outsider candidate with a business background. She hasn’t looked back since, even after the Access Hollywood comments were leaked.

“Boys will be boys, and for that matter, girls will be girls,” she said. “These are the ways people talk with each other in private. We wouldn’t use these words in public.” Auclair said what Hillary Clinton did to Monica Lewinsky in the mid 1990s was far worse after Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky became public. “She did everything in her power to demonize this women. That cuts to the core of me.”

“I think you’re going to be surprised to see how many women are for Trump,” Auclair continued. “Over the past four or six months I’ve met many women who are very loud Trump supporters, as well as very quiet Trump supporters. They have one thing in common: They are women business owners.”

Jennifer DeJournett, who runs the advocacy group Voices of Conservative Women, also initially backed Fiorina. As she’s been out knocking on doors for Republican legislative candidates, she’s sensed more fatigue from women voters than anything else. “I get the sense that everyone is just ready for this to be over,” she said.

But she knows women, fatigued or not, are still likely to get out to vote. Across the nation and in Minnesota, women vote in higher numbers than men. Four years ago, 72 percent of voting-age women in Minnesota turned out to vote, compared to 69 percent of voting-age men. The difference was larger in 2008, when 74 percent of voting-age women showed up compared to 67 percent of voting-age men.

“If you can’t secure women voters in this election cycle, you’re done. Women will vote,” DeJournett said. “Regardless of whether they are happy or not with their choices, women appreciate the power of their voice at the ballot box. This will be the final lesson, hopefully, that if you’re running a 20-point deficit with women voters, especially the typical suburban soccer mom, you can’t win.”

‘It’s a watershed moment’

Republicans have struggled to bring more women into the party over the years. That fact was crystal clear in the aftermath of the 2012 election, when Obama beat Republican nominee Mitt Romney with a 12-point lead among women voters. At the same time, women are supporting Democratic candidates across the ballot at higher levels each year. Part of that has to do with Democratic policies that line up with women’s interests, experts say, but it’s also because the Democratic Party recruits more women candidates to run.

“The Democratic Party has supported more women candidates, so when women look at the party, they see more women,” Huddy said. “This is just a consolidation in the trend. Trump makes it more pronounced, but this is not something out of left field. It’s been happening for some time.”

Democrats hope the sharp focus on women’s issues in the 2016 campaign will have implications far beyond this election cycle. “I believe very strongly that Donald Trump’s comments about Latino voters and the way he’s treated women will really push both groups into the Democratic column for years to come,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “It’s a watershed moment in politics right now.”

Beecham said womenwinning has identified more than 700 pro-choice candidates who have promised to run for office sometime in the future, and the group has more women than ever on their volunteer and email lists. “We are growing our membership like crazy this election,” she said. “There is going to be a payoff that 2016 has in our elections for years to come.”

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