When Jamie Johnson took her three children to the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California, this month, she looked out at the sea of cheering faces and felt nervous. It was barely a month after two shooters inspired by the Islamic State group killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, and for all she knew, the next terrorist attack could be about to take place right in front of her, Johnson said.
“I could take my kids to church and somebody could start shooting. As a mom, you’ve got that Mama Bear instinct, and so you want to protect your family and your children,” she said.
Johnson, a 38-year-old resident of Des Moines, Iowa, indicated the desire to protect her children factors into many aspects of her life. With the Iowa caucuses just a couple of days away, she has become more focused on the U.S. presidential election and on choosing a leader who can protect her country from the threat of terrorism.
“I look at it from my children’s perspective of what this world is going to be like as they leave the house,” said Johnson, who is leaning toward U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Foreign relations and terrorism is number one on the list. I want to keep my kiddos safe.”
Billionaire businessman Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican presidential field, both nationally and in Iowa, and he’s showed no sign of slowing down. But among women in Iowa, he is not all that popular. Frequently mothers, many of these women are focused on national security, and both interviews and polls have suggested they do not believe Trump can make America safe again. Instead, a number of these women are putting their energy into supporting Cruz or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, which could spell trouble for Trump in what is expected to be a close race Monday.
After the high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino last year, a CBS News/New York Times poll in December found that more Americans were concerned about future terrorist threats than at any point since right after Sept. 11, 2001. In the months since the attacks, the feeling has remained particularly strong among women, at least in the early-voting state of Iowa.
Quinnipiac University Poll results released Jan. 26 showed Iowa women overwhelmingly cared about foreign policy when voting. A full 25 percent of women said terrorism was the most important issue in deciding who to support for the Republican nomination, while just 13 percent of men said so. Women also rated foreign policy as more important than men did. The same disparity was seen in the results of a recent CBS News/YouGov poll, which indicated 21 percent of women and 10 percent of men said choosing a president who could fight terrorism was most important to them.
Such concern is reminiscent of the “security moms” who supported President George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign. After the 9/11 attacks, married women who might have otherwise voted for Democrats trusted Republicans to do a better job of protecting their families from terrorism, with 56 percent of that demographic supporting Bush. Ronald Reagan also appealed to this kind of fear, and he did well with women in 1980.
Not all political pollsters ask whether respondents have children, or even whether they’re married, so it’s difficult to compare the data exactly. But the rising number of women interested in national security represents a pattern this election cycle similar to the one 12 years ago.
“With a lot of the other mothers I talk to, they are concerned about terrorism. A lot of women like me still feel raw after 9/11, so that’s still very much in the forefront of our heads, and having children makes you worried about these things,” Johnson said.
As Trump and Cruz have battled for the top spot in Iowa polls in recent weeks, the two have engaged in increasingly harsh attacks on one another. Overall in the state, the former may be leading, and the latter may be lagging, but, among women, the converse appears to be the case.
The Quinnipiac poll this week found that while 36 percent of men in Iowa backed Trump, just 25 percent of women in the state supported him. Meanwhile, 25 percent of women backed Cruz, and 15 percent of women supported Rubio. Women are more likely than men to still be undecided at this point, but regardless of which candidate they support, the data on favorability is clear. A recent Public Policy Polling survey found Cruz with a 67 percent favorability rating among women. The comparable figures were 54 percent for Rubio and 48 percent for Trump.
Trump is known for his colorful insults of his GOP rivals, and he spews out more profanity than most politicians in presidential contests. At various times on the campaign trail during the past year, he has pledged to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and “bomb the s--- out of them” — neither promise is exactly the language most mothers want to hear. (ISIS is another name for the Islamic State group.)
Naomi Leinen is a 39-year-old Rubio volunteer who broadcasts her love for her children and for Rubio on her active Twitter feed. She has been taking her kids to political events since they were in infant carriers. She remembers going to rallies shortly after moving to Iowa in 2000, when she would let her baby listen to politicians’ speeches. Now, she discusses the presidential race with her 12-year-old son, but said she doesn’t like the example set by Trump.
“He says what needs to be said oftentimes. But I’m also a mother of three boys, and it’s not really the style of a leader that I want for them,” Leinen said.
Other women said they enjoyed the spectacle of Trump, but have been turned off by his lack of details. The front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination began his campaign by refusing to detail his plan against the Islamic State group, claiming other candidates would steal it in the event he gave out specifics. Now, his plan appears to involve everything from bombing the militant group and taking its oil to killing the families of terrorists — which would likely amount to a war crime — to trying to close the internet. Trump has also drawn criticism for his call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. and for what many see as repeated sexist comments.
“I don’t have the tolerance for anyone who has to pick on gender, race, anything over leadership. Those components should not be a part of thoughtful discussion,” said Sara Kurovski, 31, who is the Republican mayor of Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
Kurovski, who has two boys ages 4 and 3 and works for the United Way of Central Iowa at her day job, said she wants a president who understands her values and will provide a voice for those who don’t otherwise have one. She said Trump “has gone over the line, and I believe he would set the stage for men to treat women differently.”
Some young mothers mentioned seeing a particular lack of support for Trump among women their own age. But older friends or grandparents were more forgiving, they said.
“In my age group, a lot of them are quiet Marco fans,” said Tracee Knapp, a 43-year-old mother of three who supports Rubio. “But my friends that are older, the ones over 60, they like Trump. I don’t like his behavior. ... When you’re in a national election, you have to be much more diplomatic than that.”
Republican women are not always a voting bloc courted by candidates, because their preferences can look a lot like those of Republican men. This time around, however, if Cruz and Rubio are hoping to woo GOP moms ahead of Feb. 1, then homing in on foreign policy seems like the way to go.
And that’s exactly what the two candidates have been doing over the past month as they’ve toured Iowa: Both have routinely criticized President Barack Obama for what they see as a weak strategy for taking on the Islamic State group. Rubio has said he wants to fix that by using U.S. troops to support a coalition of Sunni countries, while Cruz has said he would amp up U.S. airpower and arm Kurdish forces.
Many Iowa women interviewed this week said they were looking for a strong leader to bring change, emphasizing they wanted to see a hardline stance against the policies of the Obama administration.
“Cruz with his foreign policy, he just knows this backwards, forwards and inside-out. He’s on top of this. He wants to get Benghazi, Libya, and the terrorist attacks investigated, he introduced legislation to suspend letting people go from Guantanamo Bay,” Betty Davids, a mother of three, said this week in between taking orders at her furniture store in Buffalo City, Iowa.
Davids, who agreed to be a county chair for Cruz, said she doesn’t want someone making deals as commander in chief. “Trump’s OK, but geez, not for president, hello!” Davids said.
It’s common for Iowans to have family members who have served in the military, many women said, and a National Guard base in Des Moines means that conversations about the U.S. military often hit close to home.
Knapp, the Rubio supporter, has a stepdaughter who just finished her tour of duty with the Air Force. Knapp has knocked on doors, made phone calls and told her friends about her candidate. She’s hoping to see a good turnout Monday night, because she wants someone who she believes will invest in protecting her children from the likes of the Islamic State group.
“I feel like our military isn’t a priority, and, with all these attacks, it should be,” Knapp said. “Right now, I really believe ISIS is a threat, and I know that we need a good leader to develop a plan to deal with ISIS — not a bully but a good leader.”