“President Trump has completely worn me down.” That’s what Fred, a Republican from New Mexico, told me. “I’ve been pretty darned patient, but his propensity to deny what is glaringly real and his propensity to outright lie — I mean, good golly, Molly.” Fred voted for Trump in 2016, and he is one of 33 voters from my panel of 500 who gave Trump the thumbs up initially but who is now repulsed by his leadership. To understand the electoral plans of this voting bloc, I interviewed them in depth.
In 2016, these voters opted for Trump partially as a vote against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom they perceived to be untrustworthy and condescending. Even more, they took a flier on Trump because they liked his economic policies, his beliefs about smaller government, and his plans to shake up the Washington bureaucracy. Sue, who lives in Washington, D.C., liked that “he was willing to forgo political correctness and connect directly with issues that I felt were important and needed airing,” such as free enterprise and the need to correct what she calls “our entitlement society.” Today, these voters defend Trump’s progress on the economy, his actions to eliminate overregulation, his stance on China, and his efforts to halt illegal immigration.
But they were expecting Trump to mature in the job, to mellow over time. Instead, they perceive President Trump to be the same as candidate Trump — even three and a half years later.
Said Andrew from Wisconsin, “I am surprised at the lack of character growth over his presidency. I really thought he was going to grow into the role more.” These voters expected that Trump’s divisiveness and “immaturity” would subside over time. Robert from Massachusetts noted, “There was never the presidential pivot. He remained a petty, name-calling bully not fit for the leader of the free world.”
Across the board, these voters are less averse to Trump’s policies than they are to his comportment. They describe him as “childish,” “narcissistic,” “stubborn,” “insecure,” “bombastic,” and “a moron.” Added Chris from New Jersey, “He is so crass and really needs to tone it down. Why can’t he focus on bringing our nation together?”
When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious? What’s happening now? A total nut job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2020
The predominant policy position that disappoints this group is Trump’s extreme stance on the environment. As Chris said, “I do believe in global warming, and he not only denies climate change, but he has gutted agencies and policies that would have helped our planet.” Otherwise, for these voters, their dissatisfaction is all about Trump’s personality.
The key question for the election, of course, is: Are Trump’s shortcoming severe enough to get them to vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden? Most are still wavering.
Of the 33 participants, five plan to vote for Biden, seven will still vote for Trump, eight will stay home rather than vote, and the remainder are undecided. As they were in 2016, these voters tend to be unhappy with both candidates and expect to go into the voting booth holding their noses. As Tim from Colorado asked, “Are these really the best two people we can find in a country of 330 million? We have a duty to vote, but we also have a duty to put decent candidates up to vote for — and both parties have fallen short.”
Many express concerns about Biden’s mental acuity and his ability to bring fresh energy to our country. Adam, a New York voter, suggested that Biden’s current silence and gaffes must be replaced with something more inspiring: “Biden needs to come out and start demonstrating he can and will take over and make our future better than anyone else, to show us that he is a force to be reckoned with.” Biden supporters might defend their candidate and cite his media presence of late, but these disaffected Trump voters haven’t seen much that captures their imagination.
Disillusioned Trump voters have advice for Biden. Chuck from Oregon, who thinks Trump should “stop getting up in front of the microphone and stop tweeting,” said Biden “should get in front of a microphone and start tweeting.” As for Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, most say it will make a difference only if Biden chooses a “radical” like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Senator Kamala Harris of California, in which case they are less inclined to vote for him. Predictably, for this group of former Trump voters, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would be their preferred pick — or even someone from the other party, like former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice or Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who they believe would put teeth into Biden’s promise to unite the United States.
Trump’s weak coronavirus pandemic performance could still sink him with these voters. They don’t fault the president for a slow start, citing the uncertain and unprecedented situation — but they do condemn his leadership during this crisis. “Pretending that it’s not bad or that it’s over, and saying that we will defeat COVID by Easter, was just ridiculous,” said Michelle, a North Carolina resident. Many others denounced Trump’s inability to “get out of the way,” and his failure to model the very policies our government is advocating. “For God’s sake, wear the damned face mask,” pleaded Christina from Pennsylvania.
We already know that voter enthusiasm will be a critical factor in November. Yet with an ineffective White House, high unemployment, politicians who mostly blame one another, and a pandemic that seems to have no end, these former Trump supporters are both exhausted and demoralized. Initially engaged and hopeful about the future, they now seem resigned and skeptical about the federal government’s ability to improve our lives. Many wonder if their votes will really matter. At the moment, this segment of disaffected Trump voters is small, but in light of the president’s shaky coronavirus performance, it’s likely to get larger in the next several months.
Although voters determined to vote for Trump probably won’t change their minds, there remains an important group who are undecided or who are currently sitting on the sidelines. There is still time for an inspiring, clear-minded Joe Biden to energize them.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html