They voted for him and now regret it. Why White women are turning away from Trump.
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 covid-19, 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.”