Listen to this article
When Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz both shoot arrows at your back over the same issue, you can be sure that something has gone badly wrong. For Donald Trump, that moment came this week when the New York property mogul suggested that women should be punished for having abortions.
After his comments to MSNBC ignited a furious backlash from across the political spectrum, Mr Trump made a rare reversal. In a statement, he said doctors who performed the operation, and not the women, should be disciplined if the Supreme Court banned the procedure, which has been legal since the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling.
Since the start of his unorthodox presidential campaign, Mr Trump has been the Teflon candidate. His poll numbers have not suffered from what critics view as his race-baiting and xenophobic rhetoric. While Republican foreign policy experts have been stunned by his willingness to reduce the US role in Nato and allow nations such as Japan to build nuclear arsenals, the average Trump supporter has not registered the slightest concern.
But the tycoon is starting to face a problem: his demeaning remarks about women are taking a toll. He began his White House quest by insulting Megyn Kelly, a popular Fox News anchor, whose tough questioning he suggested was due to “blood coming out of her whatever,” in a crude reference to menstruation. He later asked how anyone could back Carly Fiorina, the only Republican woman in the race, saying “look at that face”.
Percentage of female Republicans who say Donald Trump would be a bad president
Mr Trump retains a big lead in his party’s delegate race, but his favourability ratings have fallen among Republicans since January as the GOP field has narrowed from more than a dozen candidates to three. According to the latest Pew Research poll, the share of Republicans who think he would make a good or great president has fallen seven points from January to 49 per cent. Meanwhile, the share of GOP voters who believe he would make a bad or terrible president has risen eight points to 30 per cent.
But the deterioration is even more pronounced among Republican women, with 38 per cent responding that he would be a bad president, a 14-point rise from January. Even more concerning for Mr Trump should be the fact that his comments will come back to haunt him if he becomes the Republican nominee and faces Hillary Clinton. Mrs Clinton will be aiming to break the “glass ceiling” for women, and making a pitch to an electorate that at least in 2012 was roughly 53 per cent female.
In the days before his abortion comments — which united women who support and oppose the procedure — Mr Trump retweeted unflattering photographs of Mr Cruz’s wife Heidi. He then defended his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowksi, after the aide was charged with “battery” for allegedly manhandling a female reporter.
In the interview where he made the abortion comments, Mr Trump conceded that women had become less enamoured with him. Asked why his numbers with women were poor, he said: “I don’t understand why. I mean, the numbers aren’t good. The numbers were good. The numbers aren’t as good with women as they were. But nobody respects women more than I do.”
David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents now at the Kennedy School of Government, said Mr Trump seemed to be “self-destructing” with a series of comments about women having sparked concern even among some of the tycoon’s supporters.
“One wonders if he has a death wish . . . he has made himself almost unelectable in the fall,” said Mr Gergen, who added that it was one thing to push controversial views on foreign policy, but “quite another thing to show so little respect for women and not even know your own position [on abortion].”
The growing scrutiny of his attitude towards women comes as he encounters some of the strongest headwinds since voters first went to the polls in early February. He faces a particularly tough fight in Wisconsin, the Midwestern state that holds its primaries on Tuesday and where Mr Trump is hoping for a victory that would boost his chances of getting the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination and avoid a contested convention.
But polls in the Badger State show Mr Trump struggling against Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who remains the only other Republican who has a mathematical chance of reaching 1,237 delegates before the convention. The latest Fox Business poll showed Mr Cruz leading the New York tycoon 42-32 per cent among Republican voters.
The poll also highlighted Mr Trump’s challenge with women. Forty-six per cent of Republican women preferred Mr Cruz, while Mr Trump came second at 27 per cent just ahead of Ohio governor John Kasich. When asked who was their second choice, Mr Trump came last with 10 per cent, while Mr Cruz had 21 per cent support and Mr Kasich had 39 per cent.
White House Countdown: Sign up for our daily US election email