On a dreary day in January 2013, House Republicans gathered at a golf resort in Williamsburg, Va., for an unusual seminar. Two months earlier, the GOP had squandered a golden chance to grab control of the Senate. A series of wrongheaded remarks, such as Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape,” had frittered away winnable races and dragged colleagues into the controversies. To avoid repeating those mistakes, party officials brought in Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to make a presentation.
Conway’s instructions were blunt. Stop talking about rape, she told the largely male audience. It was a “four-letter word” that has no place in political campaigns, especially as Democratic opponents castigate the party for its alleged “war on women.” Conway’s words carried the weight of experience. Akin had been her client.
Now Conway is advising another candidate with a penchant for provocative remarks. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump named Conway his campaign manager on Aug. 17, just weeks after she joined his effort as a senior adviser. The decision already appears to be paying off. In the week since elevating the veteran GOP strategist, Trump has tried to tame his tongue. He has swapped freewheeling speeches for TelePrompTers and policy addresses, expressed regret for unspecified offenses and signaled that he may be considering a softer position on illegal immigration. He even traveled to Louisiana for a conventional candidate photo-op, where he was briefed on flood rescue plans.
Party insiders and Trump aides alike give some of the credit to Conway. Her job, they say, is as much about managing the candidate as it is overseeing the nuts and bolts of his ground game. In the final stretch of the campaign, Trump has decided to rely on the veteran GOP strategist, 49, to devise a plan to reverse his sliding polls, sing his praises on TV and provide a stabilizing presence in a haphazard operation. And while Conway isn’t the first professional operative to be handed the role, she seems—at least so far—to be breaking through in ways her predecessors could not.
“She is very effective, not just at communicating a message, but understanding what message works for what person,” says a senior Republican Party official. Just as important as devising a pitch for specific demographic groups is crafting one that will resonate with Trump. And Conway, the official says, is proving to be adept at managing someone “who doesn’t want to feel managed.”
Conway has run her polling firm, The Polling Company/WomanTrend, for more than two decades, advising corporate clients and top Republican officeholders like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who Trump tapped as his running mate. Much of her work has focused on how to reach out to women, and she is the co-author of a 2005 book, What Women Really Want, with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
During the battle over health-care reform in 2009 and 2010, Conway advised the GOP to ditch its wonky, stats-heavy messaging campaign against Barack Obama’s plan in favor of a narrative that emphasized how the overhaul would affect ordinary people. She has helped female Republican legislators craft policies on issues like equal pay and childcare, though none of that legislation was signed into law. And she counsels party members to counter the “war on women” narrative by explaining how their policies will fatten voters’ pocketbooks.
“She has thought more about the concerns of women than any other Republican I know,” Gingrich wrote in an email to TIME. “She is direct but pleasant, and will be a big asset to Trump in shifting from primary to general election mode.”
Conway, who once lived in a Trump building, has known her new boss for about a decade. She served as an informal adviser to Trump during his flirtation with a 2012 presidential campaign. When the New York developer briefly mulled a bid for the Empire State governorship in 2014, Conway conducted a poll assessing his chances. And when Trump moved toward launching his presidential campaign in 2015, she was approached about joining the effort. But Conway, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, instead signed on with Keep the Promise 1, a super PAC organized to support Cruz, who would become Trump’s top rival for the GOP nomination.
Weeks after Cruz bowed out of the race in May, Conway slid over to become a senior adviser to Trump. Since then, she has helped counsel Trump to curb his outbursts and attempt a more statesmanlike tone, including his careful response to the killing of five Dallas police officers during a Black Lives Matter rally. Those efforts have accelerated since she took the helm of the campaign, from his expressions of regret to his unusual outreach campaign ostensibly aimed at African-American voters. “What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked a predominately white crowd during a campaign stop in Michigan.
As a strategist who specializes in helping Republican men refine their pitch to female voters, Conway has taken on tough jobs before. “An outsized ego is no match for Kellyanne Conway,” says Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked with Conway on behalf of Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. “It looks like Trump is actually listening to her.”
But with Trump trailing in national and swing state polls, Conway will have to do more than just temper the candidate’s rhetorical excesses. She will have to chip away at Hillary Clinton’s polling lead, which is fueled by a daunting gender gap. Recent surveys show Trump trails Clinton by about 20 percentage points among women.
“There’s no question” that Donald Trump would be better for American women than Hillary Clinton, Conway told TIME in an interview at the GOP convention in Cleveland. Clinton “runs around saying, ‘I’ll be the first female president.’ Why isn’t she at 70% amongst women?” Conway continued. “She’s nowhere near there, and you know why? It’s because women say, ‘You share my gender, that’s really fascinating, that’s kind of cool, but do you share my vision, do you share my values?’”
Conway likes to say that Republicans can’t treat women—who, after all, comprise the majority of voters—as a traditional interest group. That means not limiting their pitch to subjects like abortion or reproductive rights. The GOP shouldn’t talk to women “from the waist down,” she told TIME in 2014. “Most women say please speak to me from the waist up: my brain, my eyes.”
Lake, her Democratic co-author, says Conway is “a real expert on women voters” who knows how to target key groups who will be receptive to his message. “In our book, we identified religious women, senior survivors, suburban caretakers, and waitress moms, among others, that I would think would be targets for Trump,” Lake told TIME. “She could be a great help to Trump if he listens to her. She has an 11-year-old, so she can use some of the techniques she uses with her.”
Serving as Trump campaign’s leader has proven to be a perilous gig. The candidate who coined the catchphrase “you’re fired” has dispatched two, including Conway’s immediate predecessor Paul Manafort, who was similarly brought on to broaden the businessman’s appeal. And like most operatives with a long record in Washington, she has her share of critics. “Kellyanne is a primary specialist who portrays herself as a specialist with women,” says Republican strategist Katie Packer, who has worked with Conway. “She doesn’t really seem to understand the kind of women the GOP needs to win a general election. That was clearly evident when she was an apologist for Todd Akin and the ‘legitimate rape’ comments.”
Conway stuck with her controversial client in that race. Now she has another one in Trump, whom Republicans are again ready to blame for potentially blowing control of the Senate. This time she is hoping for a better outcome.
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small
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