PHILADELPHIA—They had to be out there. The country is too big for them not to be. Somewhere in the electorate existed that scarce band of voters: the few and far between who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and now want to keep President Donald Trump in power.
But where? Who are the people who looked at two candidates different in every way imaginable and concluded, four years apart, that both are qualified to lead the free world? What happened that perhaps made them wish they’d voted for Trump in the first place?
They “are rare creatures,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, told me. “You can find some, but you also can find needles in haystacks.” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, emailed: “Hmmm … I honestly have nothing to say about Clinton ’16/Trump ’20 voters. I wasn’t aware that there were any, at least not enough to swing an election.”
Determined to find one, I set about making calls, but promising leads quickly fizzled. A Republican Party official in North Carolina gave me the number of a friend who, it turned out, had not voted for Clinton after all. A Republican operative in Florida texted “😂 ” when I asked if he knew anybody. (“Ha! None that would talk about it.”)
A staffer in a county Republican Party office in Pennsylvania said she’d try to find people for me, but she later told me she’d spoken with the Trump campaign, and was advised not to cooperate. Next I tried a local Republican leader in Philadelphia. He told me about another local Republican leader in Philadelphia. And that led me to a rooftop deck in Philadelphia last month for a masked face-to-face interview with one of the election’s elusive outliers.
Drew Murray is a married 48-year-old father of two with a cool job: He designs and sells storage systems for museums to house the parts of their collections not on display. He grew up in a household of Democrats in Villanova, a Philadelphia suburb. Yes, he voted for Clinton four years ago. But over time he’d become disillusioned with the party he’d joined as a freshman at Dickinson College. He opposes abortion rights and felt that the Democrats had lurched leftward on that issue and others, leaving no place for him anymore.
So two years ago he took a leap and changed his registration to Republican. Now he’s a Trump voter, if not exactly a Trump zealot. “I’ve seen the anger that people have for the president,” he told me. We were sitting at a metal table with an owl figurine as its centerpiece, overlooking the two Comcast skyscrapers that dominate the Philadelphia skyline. “I understand that anger,” he continued. “I get it. But for me, it’s not necessarily a vote for the president. It’s a vote against the Democratic Party. They’ve gone so far left.”
Murray is an anomaly in more than one respect. He’s also running for office, as a Republican, in a place that really dislikes Republicans. Philadelphia County is the bluest in the state, and Democrats hold a 6-to-1 advantage over the GOP in the state-House district where Murray is on the ballot. The district is wealthy and liberal, home to tony Rittenhouse Square, grand townhouses, and upscale apartment buildings. “That district will eat him alive,” Craig McCoy, a longtime reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, told me when I asked him about Murray’s candidacy.
Although Murray knows he’s a long shot, he argues that voters have soured on the city’s Democratic leadership and want change—citing local protests against police brutality that at times turned violent and destructive over the summer. Yet Murray’s experience door-to-door campaigning suggests that if voters want to purge anyone, it’s, well, him and his party. “When people find out you’re a Republican, they’re almost angry,” said Murray, who ran unsuccessfully for city council a year ago. “I’m hanging door knockers and a couple of people come out and they yell at me: ‘How can you support the Republican Party?’”
Even more perplexing: How is it that he’s supporting Donald Trump? Because lots of people just like him are bailing. Many white men with college degrees—the Murrays of the world—have abandoned the president. They favored Trump 53 to 39 percent in 2016, exit polls show. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey last month found that college-educated white men now disapprove of him by nearly the same margin.
Trump doesn’t seem interested in winning them back. He governs for his base, caters to his base, listens to his base. He hasn’t made overtures to the dwindling middle, let alone any past Clinton voters. To this day, he drips disdain for his former election opponent. All of which makes it that much more unusual to find anyone in the Hillary diaspora who’s switched loyalties.
“If you voted for Hillary in 2016, there’s probably very little about Trump in the last four years that would have appealed to you and made you say, ‘Oh, I made an error. I didn’t see all those strong, warm feelings that he had,’” Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster, told me. He cited another Wall Street Journal/NBC survey showing that only about 4 percent of the people surveyed who backed Clinton in 2016 now favor Trump. Approximately 6 percent of Trump 2016 voters now support Joe Biden. “People are in their party silos,” Hart said.
A Clinton-to-Trump voter is obliged to hold a set of countervailing thoughts in their head. They voted for a candidate in 2016 (Clinton) whom Trump has said should be in jail; now they favor a candidate (Trump) whom Clinton contends is a mortal threat to democracy.
One thing to know about Murray, though, is that he had little affection for Clinton in the first place—and hadn’t been particularly cold to Trump. “She just rubbed me the wrong way,” he said. “I felt she felt entitled to the position and didn’t really want to fight for our vote.” Yet he saw her as the better choice back then, believing the former senator, secretary of state, and first lady possessed experience that Trump lacked. “It made me nervous voting for someone who was completely outside of the political arena,” he said.
Four years later, he says that plenty about Trump’s behavior makes him uneasy, and he wishes Trump would “act much more presidential.” But he said he’s voting for Trump chiefly because of what the president is not: a Democrat. “It’s becoming more of a socialist party,” he said. “As a capitalist, I’m very fearful of that.”
Murray has other reasons too. He likes the president’s handling of the economy, although he believes the tax cuts passed in 2017 could have given a bigger boost to the middle class. He agrees that the nation needs stronger borders. He’s worried about some of the same episodes of street violence that Trump has hammered in his campaign messaging.
At one point, his wife, Kristy, came up and joined us on the roof deck. I asked her what she makes of her husband’s political odyssey. After all, Trump’s polarizing presidency has strained and tested families. She didn’t say whom she’s backing in the election, but offered: “It’s his process, it’s his business, it’s his choice … Whatever his journey would be, I would support it. That’s what makes America, marriages, relationships, families, and the world go around.”
The conversation struck me as a kind of anachronism. It reminded me of how people talked about politics before Trump came along. Back when conventional candidates competed in accordance with agreed-upon norms—not to mention a shared reality—people did vote based on issues like tax policy. They parsed the candidates’ records on law enforcement and immigration. All of that now seems quaint. The whole American experiment feels like it’s wobbling. Trump won’t even commit to bowing out if he loses, raising the possibility of a constitutional crisis with no way out.
A crisis that could turn bloody. National-security experts worry that Trump’s rhetoric about the election might encourage his most extreme supporters to flood the streets in protest in the event of a defeat.
At the debate last month, Trump wouldn’t clearly and directly denounce white supremacists. Murray and I spoke twice about race—once before the debate and again afterward in a phone call. On both occasions he said he doesn’t believe the president is a racist. But that debate answer left a grim impression. “I thought he handled it horribly,” Murray said. “He absolutely needs to come out and state that he condemns all white-supremacist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic groups.”
Will you still vote for Trump? I asked. “It makes it more difficult to vote for him,” he said. As he paused and gathered his thoughts, I wondered if my Clinton-to-Trump voter was vanishing right then and there. Were the phone calls and car trips for naught? I wondered.
And then: “Look, I’m a ward leader. One of my jobs is to get all Republican candidates elected. It makes it a little challenging. It gets harder and harder. I hope he doesn’t say anything else.”
Don’t count on that.