These women generally loathe Trump. When I ask why they rate him as doing a bad job, they rarely pull their punches. He’s a “narcissist,” “bully,” and “racist”; he’s “unprofessional” and “embarrassing” as well. They are dismayed by the chaos, the tweeting, his general nastiness and divisiveness. They thought that the bombastic showman they saw on the campaign trail in 2016 was an act and that Trump would rise to the dignity of the presidency. They agree—with a mixture of horror and bemusement—that such a transformation never took place.
Anyone watching this part of one of my focus groups would assume that virtually none of these women would vote for Trump again. But when I ask who they plan to vote for in November, the results are mixed. Typically, some are voting for, or leaning toward, Biden; some are voting for, or leaning toward, Trump; and many are still undecided.
Some of the women who are definitely voting for Biden had immediate buyer’s remorse after voting for Trump in 2016. One of them memorably told me that she “would vote for a dog over Donald Trump.” Many women who fall into this category say that if they had it to do over, knowing what they know now, they would have voted for Hillary Clinton.
But most of these women say their thinking evolved over time as they weighed the foibles of the president against sins of the elites, whom they viscerally distrust. For instance, during the focus groups I convened throughout Trump’s impeachment, few of the women had anything nice to say about Trump’s actions. But their real contempt was reserved for Democrats and “the media,” whom they viewed as unnecessarily adversarial to Trump. And the plain fact is that they were unwilling to give much weight to an argument about the rule of law and abuse of power, because it didn’t have a visible impact on their lives.
But the pandemic has. In fact, it has created a noticeable shift in support away from Trump and toward Biden.
Before the pandemic, when focus-group participants were asked how things were going in the country, they would always split their responses into two separate categories. They thought things were going well in terms of the economy—and thought Trump didn’t get enough credit for the relative peace and prosperity the country was experiencing. They also said that the mood of the country was dark and divided, and used terms like “powder keg” to describe their inchoate concerns about the future. They worried that the president’s rhetoric and recklessness would eventually have consequences.
Read: Don’t expect Trump’s diagnosis to change the minds of pandemic skeptics
In focus groups over the past six months, participants have felt no need to bifurcate their assessments. The most common response is—seriously—a variation on the term shit show. Personal pain often spills into these women’s answers. They note that they were furloughed or laid off, or that someone in their family was. Some have underlying medical conditions or are in remission from cancer and are frustrated with people who won’t wear masks. Others talk about struggling with loneliness or trying to raise young children without the help of day care or family. Some have lost parents or relatives and weren’t able to be with them when they died. Many refer to George Floyd’s death and the protests that gripped the country over the summer. Some are angry at what they call “looting and rioting.” Others say that they joined the protests in their town or city.