Heidi and Dennis Hodges were proud to vote for President Donald Trump in 2016. “I liked his tough stance. I liked that he wasn’t a politician,” says Dennis, who runs a window-tinting company in Erie, Penn. “I supported him for three and a half years,” says Heidi, who manages the office of an auto service shop.
Then came the coronavirus crisis. For Dennis, the last straw was seeing Trump downplay the seriousness of COVID-19, even as troubling reports about the disease emerged from China. “Before the pandemic, Trump would have gotten my vote again,” he says. “Business was booming, the economy was good, it looked like everything was turned around.”
For Heidi, the stakes were personal: In March, her uncle had to visit the ER three times before he could get tested for COVID-19, she says. By the time he was finally admitted to the hospital on March 23, he was so sick he had to be put in a medically induced coma. He was on a ventilator for 28 days before his condition improved, she says. Trump “is sitting there touting that nobody has an issue with getting a test,” says Heidi. “And that’s not true.”
One of the defining questions of the 2020 election is how many Trump voters feel in November like Heidi and Dennis Hodges do now. Over the past four years, Trump has developed a Teflon mystique: no matter what he says or does, nothing seems to stick to him. Predicting that the latest outrage will finally sever his bond with supporters has been a mug’s game. And even as the coronavirus crisis escalated in March and April, there have been few signs that this is changing: 93% of self-described Republicans said during the first half of April that they approved of Trump’s performance, according to Gallup—up two points from a month prior.
Yet there is also little question that the pandemic has transformed the election. Two months ago, Trump was an incumbent president riding a strong economy and a massive cash advantage; today, he looks like an underdog in November. The RealClearPolitics polling average has former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading Trump 48.3% to 42% nationally. Trump’s prospects aren’t any brighter right now when broken down by states that were key to his 2016 victory. According to Real Clear Politics polling averages, Biden leads Trump by 6.7 points in Pennsylvania, 5.5 in Michigan, and 2.7 points in Wisconsin. Biden is also leading Trump narrowly in Florida and Arizona.
“If you look at all the swing states, virtually all of them, he’s underwater,” says Douglas Schoen, a former pollster for President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “This election is a referendum on Trump,” Schoen continues. “And so far from what we see over the last month, month and a half, he’s losing that referendum.”
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that not every Trump voter is a loyalist. In a 2016 race between two historically unpopular candidates, some Trump voters made a choice for the candidate they disliked less, not the one they liked more. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 but was lifted to victory in the Electoral College by about 80,000 votes cast in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Now his lackluster response to a global health crisis may cost him the support of some of those reluctant voters. Pamela Rodriguez, 60, is a retired teacher in Arizona who voted for Trump in 2016. The lifelong Republican says she first started to nurse doubts about the President when he mocked the late Arizona Senator John McCain. But Trump’s response to the coronavirus, she says, has sealed her departure from the GOP. “It’s really cemented that I don’t belong in this party any longer,” she says. She plans to vote for Biden, as well as Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly.
Even in red states, some voters who supported the President in 2016 but had since nursed doubts about his leadership say COVID-19 was their breaking point. “I just don’t think he’s done anything to protect us,” says Jami Cole, a 48-year old teacher in Oklahoma who supported Trump until the teachers’ walkouts in 2018. “I think the whole COVID thing has just sealed it.”
Cole and other disillusioned voters contacted for this piece are members of a private Facebook Group called “Former Trump Supporters,” where disappointed Trump voters gather to discuss their thoughts. The group was started by David Weissman, a 2016 Trump voter in Florida who now frequently tweets about his journey from Trump voter to liberal Democrat. Weissman started the group on April 20. Now there are roughly 1,500 members.
Trump’s response to coronavirus “was the final straw,” says Jessica Lavine Freeman, 48, who voted for Trump in Georgia in 2016 and now plans to support Biden. “If we had sat down and had this conversation in August of last year, I probably would have voted for Trump again.”
Brandon Hughes, a 32-year-old patient-access director at a Kentucky hospital, says he voted for Trump over Clinton partly because he figured “they’re both terrible choices.” He says he now feels a deep shame about that decision as he thinks about explaining Trump’s pandemic response to his six-year old daughter. “It’s a pandemic where over 50,000 people have died, and he shows no empathy, no remorse, no compassion—it’s all about ratings and opening up the economy as quickly as possible,” says Hughes. “I don’t think he’s capable of compassion and empathy. If he can’t show it during this, in what instance would he?”
As the Gallup polling reveals, these voters do not represent the majority of Trump’s backers, who have overwhelmingly stuck with him. “I don’t hold the President responsible for a virus that has killed people across our entire world,” says Sarah Hobson, a law firm owner from Canton, Ga., who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again. “I think he’s doing the best he can.”
Republican strategists note the pendulum could easily swing back in Trump’s direction before the election. “Three months ago we were all certain that this election was going to be about impeachment, and three months before that it was all going to be about the border wall,” says Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and co-author of The Great Revolt. But he sees signs of trouble in the polling of voters who dislike both candidates. In 2016, those voters picked Trump; in 2020, they favor Biden. “It is a warning sign” for Trump, Todd says.
For now, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are focusing on 17 battlegrounds, including key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida and harder targets like New Mexico and Colorado. “If we believed public polling, we wouldn’t have this conversation right now, because there wouldn’t be a re-elect,” Trump Victory spokesman Rick Gorka says when asked about the polling showing Biden leading in most swing states.
But even though the proportion of Trump voters who have grown disaffected is small, these voters could prove decisive, since Trump has failed to expand his support beyond his core base, notes presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar. “He likes to get to his base and he needs them,” says Kumar. “He needs them to be energized, because he got 46% of the popular vote [in 2016], and he needs to do better than that in order to win.”
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the potential danger of that approach. “There’s a group of people who voted for him because he was the lesser of two evils who are now probably going to vote against him,” says Dennis Hodges. “I’m not for Biden, but he’s going to get my vote, and my family’s vote, just because of the inadequate response from top to bottom in every aspect of this pandemic.”