September 12, 2020 at 5:41 p.m.
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.
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.”
In Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, Nora Schreiber McDonough — a 60-year-old former Republican and mother of three college students who works as an administrative assistant at a Catholic church — has been studying images and footage emerging from the protests in Portland, looking for the friends of her son, who is working on a PhD in economics at the University of Oregon. Her son has not been on the front lines himself, she said, as he has been teaching in Eugene.
She’s heartened that such a wide variety of Americans are now discussing systemic racism, and she is frustrated that Trump and his allies cannot seem to tolerate peaceful protest.
“First, they didn’t like them to kneel, and they didn’t like them to raise their fists in protest at the national anthem, and they don’t want them to speak out, God forbid. What are they supposed to do?” McDonough said. “It’s not just Black people out there protesting anymore. It’s every color, every sex, every orientation.”
She has thought about being out on those front lines herself, but has decided that “her sword” is countering fake information that she finds on Facebook.
McDonough is embarrassed that before Trump got the Republican nomination in 2016, she would defend him. But then came his attacks on the Muslim parents of a soldier killed in Iraq, his mocking of a journalist with a disability, the release of lewd comments he made about women and so many other things. She couldn’t bring herself to vote for Trump, so she wrote in the name of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R). Soon after Trump’s inauguration — when the new president described a nation McDonough thought was great as strewn with carnage — she changed her party registration to Democrat and doubts she will ever change it back.
She plans to vote for Biden, whom she hopes will rebuild and unite the country, and spends hours each day fact-checking posts made by her conservative friends and acquaintances and posting as much accurate information as she can.
Her outspokenness has hurt some of her relationships with friends and relatives. But she hopes her posts and messages break through to those who might also be questioning why they voted for Trump.
“I feel like I threw my vote away and allowed this to happen, and I think that I have to speak out and speak out the truth,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me that I’m rude. I’ve had people tell me that I’m too assertive. I’ve had people in my own family say: You shouldn’t post on Facebook, that’s not what it’s for. And I said: Listen . . . when I’m old, I’ll be able to scroll through my memories and remember that I stood for something.”
McDonough, like many of the other women, regrets not voting for Clinton. As a Republican, she was hesitant to vote for a Democrat, and she wishes Clinton had more forcefully countered Trump during the debates. Others struggled to explain what exactly they didn’t like about Clinton.
Trump won the votes of White women in 2016 by at least two percentage points and maybe by as many as 12, according to exit polls and surveys of confirmed voters. Recent national polls have found White women split between Trump and Biden, and more critical of Trump’s leadership than White men.
White women with bachelor’s degrees, a majority of whom sided with Clinton in 2016, continue to support Biden at even higher rates. White women without degrees voted for Trump by 23 to 33 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls and surveys. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in August found that Trump now leads Biden by a narrower 16 points among those women.
Johnette Ann Michaels, 54, is a longtime Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, hopeful that he would improve the country’s economy. The mother of two Army veterans, she said she could never vote for Clinton, given the inconsistencies in her explanations — Michaels considers them lies — following the 2012 attacks in Benghazi.
“I call her Hillary Killery,” said Michaels, who lives in Danville, has a bachelor’s degree in health service management and works in health care finance.
She did not expect Trump to divide the country and said his presidency has been a series of disappointments for her, although she still wouldn’t go back in time and vote for Clinton. In the past few months, she has watched numerous other countries better control the coronavirus and has been disappointed by Trump’s response to clear cases of police brutality.
She said she doesn’t understand the violent riots that have been happening across the country, especially those that damage Black-owned businesses, but she also thinks the violence is the work of outsiders trying to make the Black Lives Matter movement look bad. She is worried about police brutality and systemic racism, especially as her grandchildren are biracial. She wants to see police departments reallocate money to de-escalation training, fully use body cameras, lessen the power of police unions and be more transparent. She doesn’t believe the Trump campaign’s claims that Biden would defund police departments.
There’s no way she would vote for Trump again, she said, and she worries that the country can’t survive “another four years with this much hatred, that many lies.” Just a week ago, she was committed to voting for Biden — but now she’s not so sure.
Biden is much more liberal than she is, and Michaels worries Democrats take the wrong approach on welfare benefits. She’s concerned by Biden’s calls to add a public option to Affordable Care Act insurance plans, which she worries would lower reimbursements for hospitals and lead to even more of them closing. And she needs to learn more about Harris.
“I’ve got a lot of research to do,” she said.
Tracey Lynn Christman-Epting, a 46-year-old church secretary and longtime Republican living in Kutztown, voted for Trump, largely because he pledged to restrict abortion access, install conservative Supreme Court justices and promote Christianity. She remembers being genuinely excited when he won but said she soon came to believe he lacked substance, bragged endlessly and didn’t seem to care about the Americans he was elected to serve. So many of his words and actions were inconsistent with her faith, she said.
“I was very blinded. I listened to the evangelicals. I listened to the preachers and the pastors that were telling us that he was so wonderful — and that’s why I’m so dismayed now,” said Christman-Epting, who attended college but did not graduate. “And they’re continuing to support him. And it’s like, don’t you see? Can’t you see?”
Her views on many issues, including abortion, have evolved since 2016, and this fall she plans to vote for Biden. She said this political shift has deepened her faith, not weakened it.
“I have lost a son. I’ve lost both my parents, I’ve lost several best friends in their 40s. . . . What really attracts me to Biden is his compassion,” Christman-Epting said. “He’s lost two children. He’s lost his first wife. He has a heart, while I don’t feel Trump does. And that’s what really turned me.”