Meet the supporters Trump has lost
By Clarire Cain Miller, Kevin Quealy and Nate Cohn
For some, the disenchantment started almost as soon as Donald Trump took office. For others, his handling of the coronavirus and social unrest turned them away. For all of them, it is highly unlikely they will vote for him again.
These voters, who backed Trump in 2016 but say there is “not really any chance” they will this year, represent just 2% of registered voters in the six states most likely to decide the presidency, according to New York Times/Siena College polls. But they help explain why the president faces a significant deficit nationwide and in the battleground states.
“I think if he weren’t such an appalling human being, he would make a great president, because I think what this country needs is somebody who isn’t a politician,” said Judith Goines, 53, a finance executive at a home building company in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “But obviously with the coronavirus and the social unrest we’re dealing with, that’s where you need a politician, somebody with a little bit more couth.”
“I’m ashamed to say that I’ve voted for him,” said Goines, who described herself as a staunch Republican.
These 2016 Trump voters might not all be considered part of the president’s base — many were not enthusiastic about him four years ago. As 6% of battleground-state Trump voters, they are just a sliver of the overall electorate. Also, 2% of battleground-state voters who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 say they will vote for Trump.
But Trump defectors play an outsize role in the president’s challenge. He won by a narrow margin in 2016, and he has made limited efforts to broaden his appeal. Even a modest erosion in his support imperils his reelection chances. Another 6% of Trump voters in these states say they no longer support Trump, while allowing “some chance” that they will vote for him again.
A majority of the defectors disapprove of his performance on every major issue, except the economy, according to the Times/Siena polls. Somewhat surprisingly, they are demographically similar to the voters who continue to support him. They are only marginally likelier to be women or white college graduates.
In interviews, many said they initially backed Trump because he was a businessman, not a politician. In particular, he was not Clinton. But they have soured on his handling of the presidency. Several mentioned his divisive style and his firing of officials who disagreed with him, and especially his response to the coronavirus and to the unrest in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Not all of them are ready to back Joe Biden, but they no longer entertain the possibility of backing the president.
Overall, 78% of respondents in battleground states who said they would not vote for Trump again disapproved of his handling of the pandemic.
John Crilly, 55, a retired commercial diver in Reeders, Pennsylvania, said he voted for Trump “because the other option was Hillary Clinton.”
“What changed my mind? 120,000 deaths,” he said. “He refused to realize, ‘Oh my god, there’s a virus coming our way. Shouldn’t we do something, guys?’ COVID was the turning point. It’s the thing that touches home with everybody.”
He plans to vote for a local write-in candidate instead of Biden, who he worries is too old.
The president also lost voters because of his handling of the growing movement against police brutality and entrenched racism. More than 80% of those who will not vote for him again say that Biden would do a better job on race relations or unifying America. Of the Trump voters who have not ruled out voting for him again, only around 10% said they trusted Biden to do a better job on race relations.
Kelvin Pittman II, 34, who is self-employed doing car detailing in Jacksonville, Florida, said he voted for Trump because “he was a great businessman.” As a Black man, he said he aligns with Democrats on many issues, but as a businessman, he favors certain Republican policies.
Then came the death of Floyd. Pittman felt the president did not take it seriously: “It was kind of the last straw. It was like, this dude is just in it for himself. I thought he was supposed to be for the people.”
Some former Trump voters said it was his personality more than any specific policy that turned them off. They observed his behavior as a candidate, but expected him to act with more decorum in office.
Robert Kaplan, 57, a supervisor at a water utility in Racine, Wisconsin, voted for the president because he wanted to abolish Obamacare, and he did not trust Clinton. But he was disappointed from the start.
“He’s an embarrassment,” he said. “He’s like a little kid with a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get things to go his way. He’s very punitive — if you disagree, he fires you. He disrespects very good people in Washington trying to do some good. And I think it’s very disrespectful of the office to be tweeting all the time.”
More than 80% of the voters who will not back Trump again agreed with the statement that he does not behave the way a president ought to act. Their view is shared by 75% of registered voters across the battleground states.
“He said he was going to, quote unquote, drain the swamp, and all he’s done is splashed around and rolled around in it,” Kaplan said.
Biden was not his first pick, but he believes he has a chance to “bring the people back together.” His choice of vice president is important, he said — he hopes it is someone younger, who can close the divide between the two parties.
John Chavez, 45, a manager at a car dealership in Queen Creek, Arizona, voted for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His 2016 vote was not so much for Trump, he said, as against Clinton — he was “spooked” by things he had heard about her potential involvement in scandals.
“I thought, obviously he’s going to step it up and he’s going to have to change, he’s going to have to become more presidential,” he said. “But little did I know, he’s not. He got worse.”
There was one moment, he said, when “he lost me forever”: when Trump did not wear a mask during his recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He said that the president should not have made masks into a political symbol, and that if the public should wear masks, so should he. Chavez will vote for Biden, mostly as a vote against Trump.
Though many voters similarly described Biden as the least objectionable choice, some were more enthusiastic.
Craig Smith, 64, a veteran in Big Rapids, Michigan, said he planned to vote for Biden because “he’s got integrity, he tells the truth, he’s got compassion and empathy.”
“Donald Trump represents the past,” he said, “and I believe that the Democrats and Joe Biden and the young people of the world are looking at the future.
“I will never vote for another Republican in my life because of Donald Trump,” Smith added. “What changed? Well, three years.”