When Kristen talked over the phone Tuesday afternoon from a suburban Dallas neighborhood, she was in a different wing of her home than her spouse, with the door fastened shut.
“Right now, my husband is downstairs in the study and I’ve locked myself upstairs in my daughter’s bedroom in the opposite corner of the house,” said the mother of four, who was granted partial anonymity in order to speak freely.
Kristen’s caution may seem unorthodox. But to her it just made sense. She was, after all, about to detail her reasons for abandoning Donald Trump, the man she enthusiastically helped secure a landslide victory in Texas nearly four years ago.
There were many reasons why she wanted him out of office, but she didn’t want to start another fight with her husband over it. Especially if it could end up like the one that occurred six weeks ago, where she blocked him on Facebook.
“He was defending Trump on my posts over his own wife,” she said. “I blocked him and he got very angry at me and didn’t talk to me for like five days. My husband is so much like Trump. He’s narcissistic. He’s white. He very much benefits from white supremacy and privilege,” she went on.
“He refuses to read any information that I’ve been reading because he says that he already knows everything.”
In the post-Labor Day stretch before the general election, The Daily Beast conducted hours of conversations over two days with eight white suburban women in five consequential swing states—Texas, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—who expressed anti-Trump views on social media after years of remaining loyal to the GOP. Most described themselves as variations of former or “lifelong” Republicans who are now backing the Democratic nominee. Some cast their ballots for Trump last election, while others chose third party options or sat it out.
Most women who agreed to be interviewed did so by using only their first names. Several women expressed concerns about being potentially identified, which ranged from possible blowback by partners and other immediate family members to suspected targeting by neighbors, friends, or employers. One woman specifically coordinated a time to talk when her husband was not around.
That worry has been compounded following a nationwide reckoning with race, where some women said they hold different views than others in their circles. For months, Trump has waged a public-relations campaign to try and assuage voters’ fears of the crises happening under his leadership by turning to the presumed hazards of an uncertain Biden administration. Trump has spent much of the summer attempting to link protests over racial injustice to Democrats’ failures, and promised, in return, to restore “law and order” in the suburbs.
That message, delivered frequently from Trump’s podiums, was supposed to resonate with conservative suburban women like Pamala, a retiree located between Dallas and Fort Worth, who voted for Trump and every other Republican presidential nominee throughout her life.
A practicing Christian deeply involved in Bible study, Pamala said “the racism” is what has turned her away from the president, a choice that was met with skepticism by some close family and church-goers. “He just keeps blocking it out,” she said of her husband, recalling a tense conversation over recent protests denouncing police brutality. “There’s a difference between protesting and rioting.”
Recalling one particularly heated fight, Pamala said she told her husband, “I love you more than I care about an election,” citing the “ugly” nature of their discourse, which she described as “demeaning” at times. They no longer talk about politics.
But that doesn’t mean she intends to vote for Trump again, she said.
“I have to do what I believe in, for myself, and between God and me. He’s going to have control of it in the very end. Whatever part I can do in helping, wherever that falls, I will do. That’s why we don’t bring it up,” she said.
Two years after Hillary Clinton lost the election, she caught the ire of some voters (and later apologized) for insinuating that white women merely voted in line with the men they married. “We don’t do well with married white women,” the former Democratic nominee said about her party in 2018. “And part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.” A Washington Post op-ed published afterward by columnist Eugene Scott titled “Like it or not, studies suggest that Clinton may not be wrong on white women voting like their husbands” pointed to scholarly evidence that explained why white married women do tend to vote conservatively.
Exit polling data from 2016 showed that white women indeed went for Trump over Clinton in critical areas like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. And while the midterm elections provided some gains for Democrats with that specific voting bloc, which was split evenly for down-ballot Democratic and Republican candidates, the 2020 election will be the first chance at the presidential level for the same women to perhaps influence the outcome in a different direction.
Trump’s re-election campaign will have to defend those battlegrounds and others against Biden, whose team sees ample opportunities. Both campaigns visited Pennsylvania in recent days, with Biden stumping in Pittsburgh and Vice President Mike Pence traveling to the western region of the state this week.
Biden is currently ahead in Pennsylvania, the state where he was born, according to recent polls. An NBC News/Marist survey from late August through the first week of September places him 9 percentage points ahead of Trump, while a CNBC/Change Research poll taken between Sept. 4 and 6 shows a relatively smaller 4 point lead against the incumbent president. Biden also has spent significant resources in the area, dropping $10 million in August on ads to run on television, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Situated near Biden’s native Scranton, Ellie is one of five sisters living within about an eighth of a mile radius of each other in Moscow, a small town in Lackawanna County that narrowly swung against the state’s Trump preference and went for Clinton. Four out of five sisters are voting for Biden, she said, while one is voting for Trump, a revelation that’s created a newly tough environment for the otherwise close family. Feeling emboldened to show her commitment for the Democratic nominee after supporting Republicans for years, Ellie put out a Biden sign on her lawn, prompting some who agreed with her stance to follow her lead shortly after.
It wasn’t the first time she had voted for a Democrat. Ellie switched from the GOP to back former President Barack Obama’s first election in 2008 and has voted blue ever since. She’s now proudly promoting his old running mate against Trump.
But her vocal support of the former vice president, which she said has increased over the past few weeks, was met with subtle scorn from other neighbors. “Anybody I talk to, they’re afraid to put out their Biden signs,” she said, noting the complexity of the situation in her town that appears to remain divided. “They’re getting stolen and people’s properties are getting vandalized.”
“I think there’s a lot more Trump signs because I think that Trump supporters are much louder in showing their support,” she said. “We’re not walking around with T-shirts and tattoos and hats emblazoned with Biden 2020 on it. That doesn’t mean we’re not all going out to vote.”
The stay-at-home nature of the pandemic has presented challenges to getting an accurate read on some Republican female voters’ preferences. Focus groups that were once held in conference rooms are now being held mostly behind screens, creating a physical barrier. Rina Shah, a GOP operative who founded the group “Republican Women for Biden” has experienced some of those hurdles first-hand. Based in West Virginia, where she grew up, Shah has had some one-on-one sessions with women, but acknowledged that in-person is better for gauging an honest assessment of where they stand.
“With what I’m trying to suss out of women who are Republicans, who are on the fence about Trump as well as Biden, I’m finding that they don’t maybe want to hop on a Zoom call with me, who they don’t know, so quickly,” Shah said. “Whereas if I can make some inroads to have on-the-ground connections in Wisconsin, on-the-ground connections in North Carolina, I would much rather have those groups be in-person and safely distanced.” She intends to shift to that format soon, while adhering to federal and state health guidelines.
Kimberly Desrochers, 44, is the kind of voter Shah would likely target. Desrochers lived in Ohio four years ago, where she voted for Trump in Dublin, an affluent area outside of Columbus. Having moved across the country in 2018, she is now in Biden’s corner, ready to vote in the country’s most unpredictable tossup: Florida. And she’s convinced her pro-Trump mother to do the same.
“It took me time but I was able to sway my mom, who is a boomer,” Desrochers said. “She really supported him,” she went on, “and then she started getting angry with me that I didn’t anymore.”
After Desrochers got coronavirus in March, however, that all changed. Her mother’s staunch loyalty for the president soured.
“I was super, super sick and I was hospitalized once for 10 days and then the second time for six and a half days and she couldn’t see me because of that,” she said. “I’m her only child. That’s what changed her. She was so angry at him for his handling of COVID.”
Biden’s campaign has sought to portray Trump’s response to the virus as downright disastrous, pivoting at times away from other traditional election issues to focus on the health and economic calamity it has caused. That message was amplified by claims in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward, which are backed up by tape recordings, that showed Trump telling him: “I wanted to always play it down,” in reference to the pandemic. Trump has maintained that his administration’s work has been “great” on that front, despite more than 190,000 deaths nationally, according to the most recent count by Johns Hopkins University.
Florida was hit particularly hard. Trump briefly shifted from planning to host the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville before choosing to hold it in front of the White House due to skyrocketing rates of infection. The state’s health department announced more than 12,000 deaths as of Wednesday, with over 652,000 cases.
Both women intend to vote blue in Leesburg, an Orlando suburb, in November.
In Minnesota, a newer battleground that is becoming swingy, some Democrats are concerned that they’ll lose their long blue streak to Trump. Both candidates have deployed their families to the state, with Jill Biden, the former second lady, stopping by Prior Lake, and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, appearing in Duluth.
In Bloomington, an area just south of Minneapolis, a mother remembered feeling that she had an impossible choice of candidates during the last election, which resulted in her staying home.
But in Trump’s first term in the White House, the politics of the Republican Party have gotten much worse, said the voter, who asked to remain totally anonymous to talk honestly about an escalating family situation. That feeling fueled her desire to take up a pastime of fact-checking misinformation spun from conservative outlets. Around the time of Trump’s impeachment trial in the House, she estimated spending “several hundred hours” sifting through and independently corroborating first-person accounts with news stories that were summarized after the fact.
“Right now what’s going on in our country is so dangerous and being unaware of it while it’s starting to creep literally everywhere, I think, for people’s safety, they have to start to educate themselves,” she said.
Her penchant for finding factual information reached a turning point last month when her parents took an unexpected step backwards in their relationship. “They actually just threw me out of the family over this,” she said. “It was the conversation that started it. Ironically, they used to be involved in civil rights,” she said.
“If they knew what was actually happening, they would be completely, completely horrified and opposed, but they are convinced they know it all.”