The charm has bro­ken for some in piv­otal bloc

Both cam­paigns pur­sue White women who re­gret vot­ing for Trump in 2016

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JENNA JOHN­SON

From her home in the Philadel­phia sub­urbs, Nin Bell works for an an­swer­ing ser­vice, tak­ing calls from peo­ple try­ing to reach more than 10,000 fu­neral homes and end-of-life com­pa­nies. As the coro­n­avirus be­gan to sweep the coun­try ear­lier this year, the num­ber of calls re­lated to new deaths tripled.

Caller af­ter caller told her about los­ing a loved one to covid19, as well as to sui­cides and drug over­doses. They pro­vided an over­whelm­ingly painful win­dow into just how badly the coun­try was suf­fer­ing.

And then Bell would hear Pres­i­dent Trump — whom she voted for in 2016, help­ing him win Penn­syl­va­nia — down­play the sever­ity of the pan­demic.

“He was telling every­body it wasn’t a big deal — but I knew it was a big deal be­cause of my job. I’m like: ‘Why am I tak­ing 60 coro­n­avirus deaths in one day, on one shift, when I used to only take 20 death calls a day?’” said Bell, 47, the mother of two teenage boys who lives in Park­side, about 20 miles south­west of Philadel­phia. “He made a lot of mis­takes. He just runs his mouth . . . . He’s the pres­i­dent, he can’t get away with that, espe­cially when peo­ple’s lives are in dan­ger.”

Bell “def­i­nitely, 100 per­cent” plans to vote for Joe Bi­den for pres­i­dent — and she has been

urg­ing oth­ers to do the same.

She’s part of a group of White women, espe­cially those who are mid­dle- or work­ing-class, who didn’t vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton in the last elec­tion but are de­ter­mined to vote for Bi­den this year.

Those women, who have been tar­geted by both cam­paigns, loom large in a pres­i­den­tial race that could, like 2016’s, be de­cided by shifts among a few sets of vot­ers in the highly po­lar­ized na­tion.

Al­though Clin­ton won the ma­jor­ity of votes from women in 2016, she lost to Trump among White women. Since then, how­ever, polls have shown Trump weak­en­ing among those vot­ers.

Even slight changes in Novem­ber among White women could play a de­cid­ing role in sev­eral states that Trump won in 2016 by a ra­zor-thin mar­gin, espe­cially Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin and Penn­syl­va­nia.

In each of those states in 2018, a burst of en­thu­si­asm and par­tic­i­pa­tion from White women helped Demo­cratic can­di­dates win midterm elec­tions. Those gains were driven mostly by col­lege-ed­u­cated women, but since then women of all back­grounds have been mov­ing in Bi­den’s di­rec­tion.

Bi­den’s pitch has been a sim­ple one: He’s not Trump. Bi­den has promised to re­place the chaotic tone of Trump’s White House with calm and bring the na­tion out of its mul­ti­ple crises. Much of the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion fo­cused on Bi­den’s life story, espe­cially the chal­lenges he has over­come, and nu­mer­ous speak­ers at­tested to his hu­man­ity — char­ac­ter­is­tics that typ­i­cally mat­ter more to women vot­ers than men. Bi­den also se­lected a woman as his run­ning mate, Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (Calif.).

The Trump cam­paign has tried to win these White women back by em­pha­siz­ing the pres­i­dent’s fo­cus on “law and or­der,” op­po­si­tion to abor­tion rights and the strength of the econ­omy be­fore the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Trump made this ap­peal him­self with his tweets: “Sub­ur­ban Housewives of Amer­ica . . . Bi­den will de­stroy your neigh­bor­hood and your Amer­i­can Dream. I will pre­serve it, and make it even bet­ter!”

For the past sev­eral weeks, a neon pink “Women for Trump” bus has trav­eled through sub­urbs in the swing states, start­ing in Penn­syl­va­nia, stop­ping to al­low fe­male sur­ro­gates to re­as­sure the women they meet about the pres­i­dent’s in­ten­tions.

In Penn­syl­va­nia — where more than 6 mil­lion bal­lots were cast in 2016 and Trump won by roughly 44,000 votes — White women said in in­ter­views that they’re fed up with what they con­sider Trump’s reck­less­ness, di­vi­sive­ness and lack of em­pa­thy for the many Amer­i­cans they know who are strug­gling. Many said they’ve been dis­ap­pointed with Trump’s lack of lead­er­ship since early in his pres­i­dency, but that his mis­han­dling of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis and en­cour­age­ment of vi­o­lence amid protests against racism have ei­ther ce­mented their de­ci­sion to vote for Bi­den or have made them even more fiercely sup­port­ive of the Demo­cratic can­di­date. Sev­eral said that they know they’re the prime tar­get of the Trump cam­paign’s alarmist mes­sages, but think the coun­try will be more peace­ful and sta­ble with Bi­den in charge.

“We are un­safe in Trump’s Amer­ica — and I find it funny that he keeps post­ing pic­tures from his Amer­ica, say­ing it’s what’s go­ing to hap­pen in Joe Bi­den’s Amer­ica,” said Jen­nifer Ap­ple­gate, a 42-year-old mother of two and so­cial worker with a mas­ter’s de­gree who lives in Lan­caster. She voted for Trump in 2016 be­cause he was a po­lit­i­cal out­sider and now plans to vote for Bi­den. “I would do any­thing to have him not re­elected. I think this coun­try is a hot mess right now due to him . . . . I don’t even think this is about pol­i­tics right now. It’s more of a hu­man­ity is­sue for me.”

Bell, who has a com­mu­nity col­lege de­gree and has worked for the an­swer­ing ser­vice for a decade, had ex­pected Clin­ton to eas­ily win and re­al­ized her vote for Trump was a mis­take soon af­ter he was elected. A long­time Demo­crat who voted twice for Obama, she had seen Trump as a suc­cess­ful, pow­er­ful and charis­matic busi­ness­man who would bring a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the White House. She knew him from his re­al­ity TV show, “The Ap­pren­tice,” and didn’t learn much more be­fore vot­ing.

She’s now hor­ri­fied by her choice.

“It’s my stu­pid­ity, my ig­no­rance,” she said of her 2016 vote. “It’s em­bar­rass­ing. I find my­self still apol­o­giz­ing to peo­ple . . . . I was so dis­ap­pointed that I was part of that Trump move­ment.”

Bell has be­come in­volved with a group of Demo­cratic women in her county — “they call us an­gry housewives,” she ex­plained — and sees a clear dif­fer­ence be­tween the peace­ful protests that she attends and the vi­o­lence that has been break­ing out in some com­mu­ni­ties. She was ter­ri­fied to see images of 17-year-old Kyle Rit­ten­house car­ry­ing an as­sault ri­fle at a protest in Wis­con­sin — and then stunned to hear the pres­i­dent and his al­lies de­fend Rit­ten­house af­ter he was ac­cused of open­ing fire and killing two peo­ple. While at­tend­ing Black Lives Mat­ter ral­lies in her own com­mu­nity, Bell said, peo­ple have driven by in pickup trucks and screamed racial slurs at those demon­strat­ing, in­clud­ing at young chil­dren.

“All these peo­ple, these racist peo­ple, even in my town,” she said. “I think it’s Trump that al­lowed these peo­ple to come out from un­der their rocks and show their faces and be­lieve it’s okay to be like that.”

In Penn­syl­va­nia’s Bucks County, Nora Schreiber McDonough — a 60-year-old for­mer Repub­li­can and mother of three col­lege stu­dents who works as an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant at a Catholic church — has been study­ing images and footage emerg­ing from the protests in Port­land, look­ing for the friends of her son, who is work­ing on a PhD in eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Ore­gon. Her son has not been on the front lines him­self, she said, as he has been teach­ing in Eu­gene.

She’s heart­ened that such a wide va­ri­ety of Amer­i­cans are now dis­cussing sys­temic racism, and she is frus­trated that Trump and his al­lies can­not seem to tol­er­ate peace­ful protest.

“First, they didn’t like them to kneel, and they didn’t like them to raise their fists in protest at the na­tional an­them, and they don’t want them to speak out, God for­bid. What are they sup­posed to do?” McDonough said. “It’s not just Black peo­ple out there protest­ing any­more. It’s ev­ery color, ev­ery sex, ev­ery ori­en­ta­tion.”

She has thought about be­ing out on those front lines her­self, but has de­cided that “her sword” is coun­ter­ing fake in­for­ma­tion that she finds on Face­book.

McDonough is em­bar­rassed that be­fore Trump got the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 2016, she would de­fend him. But then came his at­tacks on the Mus­lim par­ents of a sol­dier killed in Iraq, his mock­ing of a jour­nal­ist with a dis­abil­ity, the re­lease of lewd com­ments he made about women and so many other things. She couldn’t bring her­self to vote for Trump, so she wrote in the name of Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich (R). Soon af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion — when the new pres­i­dent de­scribed a na­tion McDonough thought was great as strewn with car­nage — she changed her party reg­is­tra­tion to Demo­crat and doubts she will ever change it back.

She plans to vote for Bi­den, whom she hopes will re­build and unite the coun­try, and spends hours each day fact-check­ing posts made by her con­ser­va­tive friends and ac­quain­tances and post­ing as much ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion as she can.

Her out­spo­ken­ness has hurt some of her re­la­tion­ships with friends and rel­a­tives. But she hopes her posts and mes­sages break through to those who might also be ques­tion­ing why they voted for Trump.

“I feel like I threw my vote away and al­lowed this to hap­pen, and I think that I have to speak out and speak out the truth,” she said. “I’ve had peo­ple tell me that I’m rude. I’ve had peo­ple tell me that I’m too as­sertive. I’ve had peo­ple in my own fam­ily say: You shouldn’t post on Face­book, that’s not what it’s for. And I said: Lis­ten . . . when I’m old, I’ll be able to scroll through my mem­o­ries and re­mem­ber that I stood for some­thing.”

McDonough, like many of the other women, re­grets not vot­ing for Clin­ton. As a Repub­li­can, she was hes­i­tant to vote for a Demo­crat, and she wishes Clin­ton had more force­fully coun­tered Trump dur­ing the de­bates. Oth­ers strug­gled to ex­plain what ex­actly they didn’t like about Clin­ton.

Trump won the votes of White women in 2016 by at least two per­cent­age points and maybe by as many as 12, ac­cord­ing to exit polls and sur­veys of con­firmed vot­ers. Re­cent na­tional polls have found White women split be­tween Trump and Bi­den, and more crit­i­cal of Trump’s lead­er­ship than White men.

White women with bach­e­lor’s de­grees, a ma­jor­ity of whom sided with Clin­ton in 2016, con­tinue to sup­port Bi­den at even higher rates. White women with­out de­grees voted for Trump by 23 to 33 per­cent­age points in 2016, ac­cord­ing to exit polls and sur­veys. A Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll in Au­gust found that Trump now leads Bi­den by a nar­rower 16 points among those women.

Johnette Ann Michaels, 54, is a long­time Repub­li­can who voted for Trump in 2016, hope­ful that he would im­prove the coun­try’s econ­omy. The mother of two Army vet­er­ans, she said she could never vote for Clin­ton, given the in­con­sis­ten­cies in her ex­pla­na­tions — Michaels con­sid­ers them lies — fol­low­ing the 2012 at­tacks in Beng­hazi.

“I call her Hil­lary Killery,” said Michaels, who lives in Danville, has a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in health ser­vice man­age­ment and works in health care fi­nance.

She did not ex­pect Trump to di­vide the coun­try and said his pres­i­dency has been a se­ries of dis­ap­point­ments for her, al­though she still wouldn’t go back in time and vote for Clin­ton. In the past few months, she has watched nu­mer­ous other coun­tries bet­ter con­trol the coro­n­avirus and has been dis­ap­pointed by Trump’s re­sponse to clear cases of po­lice bru­tal­ity.

She said she doesn’t un­der­stand the vi­o­lent ri­ots that have been hap­pen­ing across the coun­try, espe­cially those that dam­age Black-owned busi­nesses, but she also thinks the vi­o­lence is the work of out­siders try­ing to make the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment look bad. She is wor­ried about po­lice bru­tal­ity and sys­temic racism, espe­cially as her grand­chil­dren are bira­cial. She wants to see po­lice de­part­ments re­al­lo­cate money to de-es­ca­la­tion train­ing, fully use body cam­eras, lessen the power of po­lice unions and be more trans­par­ent. She doesn’t be­lieve the Trump cam­paign’s claims that Bi­den would de­fund po­lice de­part­ments.

There’s no way she would vote for Trump again, she said, and she wor­ries that the coun­try can’t sur­vive “an­other four years with this much ha­tred, that many lies.” Just a week ago, she was com­mit­ted to vot­ing for Bi­den — but now she’s not so sure.

Bi­den is much more lib­eral than she is, and Michaels wor­ries Democrats take the wrong ap­proach on wel­fare ben­e­fits. She’s con­cerned by Bi­den’s calls to add a public op­tion to Af­ford­able Care Act in­sur­ance plans, which she wor­ries would lower re­im­burse­ments for hos­pi­tals and lead to even more of them clos­ing. And she needs to learn more about Har­ris.

“I’ve got a lot of re­search to do,” she said.

Tracey Lynn Christ­man-Ept­ing, a 46-year-old church sec­re­tary and long­time Repub­li­can liv­ing in Kutz­town, voted for Trump, largely be­cause he pledged to re­strict abor­tion ac­cess, in­stall con­ser­va­tive Supreme Court jus­tices and pro­mote Chris­tian­ity. She re­mem­bers be­ing gen­uinely ex­cited when he won but said she soon came to be­lieve he lacked sub­stance, bragged end­lessly and didn’t seem to care about the Amer­i­cans he was elected to serve. So many of his words and ac­tions were in­con­sis­tent with her faith, she said.

“I was very blinded. I lis­tened to the evan­gel­i­cals. I lis­tened to the preach­ers and the pas­tors that were telling us that he was so won­der­ful — and that’s why I’m so dis­mayed now,” said Christ­man-Ept­ing, who at­tended col­lege but did not grad­u­ate. “And they’re con­tin­u­ing to sup­port him. And it’s like, don’t you see? Can’t you see?”

Her views on many is­sues, in­clud­ing abor­tion, have evolved since 2016, and this fall she plans to vote for Bi­den. She said this po­lit­i­cal shift has deep­ened her faith, not weak­ened it.

“I have lost a son. I’ve lost both my par­ents, I’ve lost sev­eral best friends in their 40s . . . . What re­ally at­tracts me to Bi­den is his com­pas­sion,” Christ­man-Ept­ing said. “He’s lost two chil­dren. He’s lost his first wife. He has a heart, while I don’t feel Trump does. And that’s what re­ally turned me.”


ABOVE: Nin Bell “def­i­nitely, 100 per­cent” plans to vote for Joe Bi­den af­ter vot­ing for Don­ald Trump in 2016. LEFT: Nora Schreiber McDonough, a long­time Repub­li­can, has been out­spo­ken in her plans to vote for Bi­den.

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