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What the Women Who May Decide the Election Really Think About It

Is Trump trying to soften image? 3:42

EASTLAKE, OHIO — The ladies of the Eastlake Women's Club did something unusual last Thursday -- they talked politics.

That's never been the club's purpose; service is, and so is friendship, like rallying around Kathy S. when she had a serious surgery. But of all elections, this "chaotic, emotional" campaign, as Trump supporter Debi D. put it, terrifies them the most.

"I would love to put a sign out on my yard for Hillary, and I know there's people that would want to put their sign out on the yard for Trump," says Debby C., a Clinton supporter. "But I think people are afraid they may get hurt." Joyce, 68, wouldn't even tell her friends (or NBC News) who she was voting for.

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But the members of the Ohio women's club, some of them friends for decades, agreed to talk politics and the election that afternoon, at the request of NBC News.

Despite frequent claims of the "women's vote" working in Democrats' favor, much depends on which women. Individually, these women's views vary widely, just as the county they live in. Lake County has been nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Collectively, they make up a demographic that has reliably voted, and reliably voted Republican, in nearly every election since 1972: Married women, especially white married women.

According to the most recent NBC News/WSJ poll, however, this election may break from the trend: nationwide, Clinton leads with married women 48 percent to 40 percent, although Trump still leads by 3 points among white married women. A Monmouth University poll of Ohio released Monday showed Trump trailing Clinton among white women overall, losing by 8 points a group Romney won easily.

The Eastlake Women's Club members are not the ones who show up at rallies or conventions, like the RNC, which was held just 20 minutes away in Cleveland. They're busy volunteering on county committees or working at the local library. Wading into the campaign risked opening up some serious fissures among the women, who range in age from 55 to 74. But they gamely went in: two Trump supporters, two Clinton supporters, one undecided voter and Joyce's secret ballot.

Patti, 74 and a retired hairdresser who wore a pink bow in her hair, came out the most sharply for Trump. She wanted people to see the recent anti-Clinton film, "Hillary's America." It was hard to get her off the subject of President Barack Obama and the fact that, she told NBC News, she and her husband believe he wasn't born in the United States.

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She isn't moved, as her Clinton-supporting club members are, by the fact that Clinton would be the first female president. "Wait for a better candidate," she advised them.

But there were surprising points of agreement. Joyce described her 50th high school reunion and the startling realization that back in her school days, women weren't allowed to be class president. "It had to be one of the boys," she said. "The girl could be the vice president, but not the president."

Kathy F. the undecided voter, was nodding. "I was just remembering a lot of — from what I've heard, the stigma that a strong woman as not quite the nicest person in the world. But a strong man, 'Oh, he's just business minded,' you know.'"

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Several women murmured in agreement, and Debby remembered with some regret being told, when she expressed an interest in architecture in school, that the subject was for boys.

"We'd never had a black as a president either, and look how that turned out," objected Patti. Still, when Joyce mused, "I hate to admit it, but there are still a lot of men in this world who don't want women to have power," Patti had to agree.

"The men are gonna think that way, right, because — yeah, 'cause they don't want a woman in there!" Patti conceded, chuckling. "I'll grant ya that… They don't want a woman in as president!" She laughed at a reporter's incredulity. "Now, you know that's true!"

Though they can't imagine changing their minds about Trump, Patti and Debi D. wished aloud that the GOP nominee would tone down his rhetoric.

"Sometimes he should phrase things differently," said Debi D., a 67-year-old retired nurse. "But that's because he's like the epitome of Trump, you know? I mean, he's the boss, you know? And he's used to telling people what to do and how to do it and be successful at it."

But Patti doubted Trump had really said what the commercials and TV news (which often blurred together in the women's' memories) had claimed he said. "I don't believe any of it only because they say certain phrases and they stick them all together so that it sounds like, 'My God, this man is terrible. He's just a horrible person.'"

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If it was true that Trump had spoken about women the way the media said he did, Patti didn't like it. "You have no right to say things like that about other people," she said. Still, she thought Trump's running-mate, Mike Pence, might have a positive influence on him.

"Do you really think Trump is going to listen to this person?" Kathy S., a Clinton supporter, demanded skeptically. "Has he listened to him since he has accepted the nomination?"

Trump's tangle with the Khan family stood out to the group, and they overwhelmingly perceived it as an attack on a mother.

"Being a mother of three boys myself, one was activated for 9/11 and one volunteered for Afghanistan," Kathy S. said, "I probably would have done the same thing. Let my husband speak on behalf of the both of us."

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Debby C., whose husband served in the Navy and whose son is headed to the Marines to serve as military police, agreed. "For her not to say anything did not show me that she was weak or that was part of her culture," she said. "She's a mother that just lost her child. She shouldn't have to speak. And she shouldn't have to explain why she's not speaking." (Both women are Clinton supporters.)

By the end of the conversation, Kathy F., a 63-year-old library technician, remained undecided. There were things she admired about Clinton. "I think as a woman, you would always want to have that evenness, that don't get anything to ruffle your feathers or anything. And I think she has that." But she wondered whether Clinton cared more about the country or herself.

Joyce was still keeping her vote a secret, but she thought she knew why people were so angry. "I think it's more that we don't trust politicians, period," she said. "We've gotten to a point in the United States where they're all liars or they're all cheaters or they've all done something wrong and we're gonna blow that up. And so we don't trust any of them."

The other women were nodding. "And I think," Joyce said, "that's where Trump's power came from."