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Why More White Voters May Not Support Trump In 2020

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Questions about how white people voted in the last presidential election kicked off barely 24 hours after Election Day 2016, and Democrats bore the brunt of it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL: Is there a chronic problem for the Democrats with white, working-class voters? Has...

CORNISH: The answer seemed to be yes. And at the time, there was a lot of media attention paid to the so-called white working class.

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SIEGEL: Has the relationship between the party and that very, very large bloc in the population - has it been broken?

CORNISH: Now, I was here on air that day after the election, watching my co-host, Robert Siegel, get into it with Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell.

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DEBBIE DINGELL: I don't know that it's broken, but we as Democrats have to take a very strong look at what happened.

CORNISH: What happened was Donald Trump won Michigan...

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WOLF BLITZER: Let's take a look at the Electoral College map...

CORNISH: ...And Wisconsin...

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BLITZER: ...With that win in Wisconsin. Look at how close he is. Right now, he has 257 electoral votes...

CORNISH: ...And Pennsylvania.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: It's the first time Pennsylvania has gone red since 1988.

CORNISH: This was the so-called blue wall of states where white voters had helped Democrats win for decades.

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JAKE TAPPER: And the wall comes tumbling down. This is the blue wall that Hillary Clinton had talked about.

CORNISH: Now, the blue wall is shored up by white voters without college degrees. And yes, a lot has been said about how Trump won the majority of them. But polls show this year, for a Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden is showing historically high support with white voters, running nearly 50-50 with the president. And that is a problem for Trump's reelection strategy.

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CORNISH: Overall, in 2016, Donald Trump won white voters by 20 points, but this year...

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CORNISH: Public opinion polls show Joe Biden outperforming Hillary Clinton with white voters in general.

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PAM HENKLE: Good afternoon. Winnebago Democratic. How may I may help you?

CORNISH: Winnebago County, Wis., went for Barack Obama twice in 2008 and again in 2012 but then flipped to Trump in 2016.

HENKLE: Six months ago, I was scared because I was here during the 2016 election, and we were so confident. But we've never seen stuff like this. This is unbelievable.

CORNISH: Pam Henkle is a volunteer coordinator for Democrats in Winnebago County. That's southwest of Green Bay. In 2016, the party wasn't even sure it could keep paying rent on its headquarters. Now with all the donations flowing in, Henkle says they have enough in the bank to pay rent in advance for the whole year.

HENKLE: Now I've got so many volunteers, I'm not even knowing where to put them. I did have another gentleman this morning come in and say he wouldn't vote Republican again and he was voting Democrat and took Biden signs.

CORNISH: One thing Henkle says is accelerating the shift - the coronavirus outbreak in Wisconsin.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My plan will crush the virus and will make Wisconsin greater than ever before. That's what's going to happen.

CORNISH: In a visit to Janesville, Wisc., this past week, the president told a crowd of supporters not to worry.

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TRUMP: You know, we have a spike. You have a surge. But if you remember, two months ago, Florida had a big surge.

CORNISH: But hospitalizations in Wisconsin have more than tripled in the past month. A couple hours south of Winnebago County, a field hospital just opened up on the grounds of the Wisconsin State Fair.

HENKLE: One guy said he's been voting Republican for over 40 years, but he doesn't think he could go back to being a Republican because of the way they're thinking and the way they're supporting Trump.

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CORNISH: Pam Henkle spoke to NPR's Sam Gringlas. He's been talking to white voters in battleground states who aren't voting for Trump this year.

Hey there, Sam.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So we've just hit Wisconsin. What's next?

GRINGLAS: OK. So let's hop across the lake to suburban Michigan now because don't forget; when we talk about white voters, we're not just talking about blue-collar voters. We're talking about wealthier suburban voters too, like Nancy Strole.

NANCY STROLE: I voted for Barry Goldwater, so I've been around a long time.

GRINGLAS: She lives in this exurban part of Oakland County. And it's a place that used to be pretty Republican, think Mitt Romney-type Republican. But it's been getting a lot bluer over the last few years. Strole had voted Republican for a really long time.

STROLE: I could not bring myself to vote for Trump. I just couldn't.

GRINGLAS: In 2018, she actually started volunteering for the Democratic candidate for Congress who ended up flipping the seat blue. And when Strole went door-knocking that year, it was often women who would step outside, shut the door a little bit and say they were going to support the Democrat.

STROLE: I can't speak for my husband, she would say, but she has my vote.

GRINGLAS: Strole is 78, and she says it's not just women she's heard from. A lot of seniors don't want to vote for Trump either. They can't hug their grandkids right now because of the pandemic, and a lot of them see Trump as being somewhat responsible for that. Strole told me she's not just thinking about this one election but the country her kids and her grandkids are going to inherit.

STROLE: I'm looking in the rearview mirror of my life, but that's not the case for my son and his wife and for my nearly 2 1/2-year-old grandson and my 9-week-old granddaughter.

CORNISH: The Republicans like Strole couldn't bring themselves to vote for Trump in 2016. What are you hearing from voters who did?

GRINGLAS: Well, first of all, I've talked to a lot of people who voted for Trump in 2016 and are planning to do it again. But then there's also people like Jim Diaz.

JIM DIAZ: I'm 25 years old. And I'm from Charleroi, Pa., which is in the Mon Valley.

GRINGLAS: He works in glass installation. He's a union member, comes from this long line of organized labor and Democrats. And he lives in western Pennsylvania, a part of the state that fell on hard times when a lot of steel jobs disappeared. Diaz liked Obama, still does, absolutely would have voted for him if he was old enough at the time. But when he turned 18, he voted for Trump.

DIAZ: Listening to Donald Trump saying, like, we're going to bring these jobs back to America, I bought into it. Like, I really bought into it because I thought, like, man, like, you know, my family has seen some good times in America. And that was all thanks to the steel mill. But when that dried up, well, you've got to find other work.

GRINGLAS: But since then, Diaz's political outlook has really shifted. A lot of it has been from joining the union, growing up, following politics more. But he also says Trump didn't fulfill the promises he made. And he said it felt like Trump was prioritizing the economy over safety during the pandemic.

DIAZ: This is the United States of America. We can rebound. However, like, we can't just, like, reproduce people like our family members. Like, I can't get another mom, like, you know what I mean? Like, I can't, like, replace these people. Like, I just question whether he cared about us.

CORNISH: It's interesting, Sam. Joe Biden has spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania the past few months but specifically in these white counties that President Trump had won by large margins. And obviously - and Biden has said this - that, you know, if his campaign can cut into those margins even a little bit, it would make a difference.

GRINGLAS: Exactly. But we're also talking about places Hillary Clinton won in 2016 that Biden wants to do even better in. Across the state, right outside Philadelphia, I talked to Jane Scilovati. She's a special education teacher. And back in 2016, she basically saw the election as trying to pick between the lesser of two evils.

JANE SCILOVATI: In the end, on a last-minute decision, I pulled the lever for Trump.

SIEGEL: She kind of regretted it right away, but her doubts accelerated as the pandemic raged on.

SCILOVATI: The more and more I watched him speak and blame other people, the more I realized that I'm not quite sure we're looking at a full deck here (laughter).

GRINGLAS: Scilovati is going to vote for Biden this year. She even cut an ad with the teachers' union about why she's supporting him.

SCILOVATI: Can't change what you did, right? You can just move forward and try and do what you can to sway people the other way (laughter).

CORNISH: Does this seem like a permanent political realignment or just a reflection of this political moment that we're in right now? I mean, are these voters more or less becoming Democrats, or is this just a referendum on the president?

GRINGLAS: Yeah, so I actually asked everyone I talked to this question. And I heard a lot of different answers. So I want to introduce you to two lifelong Republicans in Michigan, Mitch Monnin (ph)...

MITCH MONNIN: I pulled the lever for Ronald Reagan.

GRINGLAS: ...And Jeanette Phillips (ph).

JEANETTE PHILLIPS: In my 20s, I joined the Republican Party as a lifetime member. It was very expensive to do, but I felt committed.

GRINGLAS: And since 2016, both have become more and more dissatisfied with Trump. Monnin is a business owner, former Army Ranger. He voted for the libertarian in 2016. He has a son who's disabled, and Trump's behavior has really gotten to him. Remember that moment on the campaign where Trump mocked a disabled reporter.

MONNIN: So in this case, I'm going to be voting for Vice President Biden not because I agree with his policies. I vehemently disagree with quite a few of them. But I truly believe that, at his core, that he is a fundamentally decent human being.

GRINGLAS: Both Monnin and Phillips didn't like Trump's rhetoric when it came to the protests over racial injustice. She's voting for Biden for other reasons too.

PHILLIPS: The Republicans have blown the deficit up. They don't care about the livelihoods of people who have lost their jobs. I lost my job three weeks ago myself. You know, they're clueless, I think, to what's going on.

GRINGLAS: Would you call yourself a Democrat now, or is it you are fighting back against Donald Trump until he is out of office?

PHILLIPS: I don't think I can vote for a Republican for the next 10 years. There has to be payback for what has just happened these last four years.

GRINGLAS: Not only that but this lifelong Republican is now donating to the local Democratic Party and has signed up to be a Democratic precinct delegate with her daughter.

Monnin is now proudly displaying a Biden sign in his yard. It's a big deal for him, but he doesn't see this as some kind of long-term shift if the Republican Party can step back and take a hard look in the mirror should Trump lose, he says.

MONNIN: I do believe that this is a vote of this moment. It is singular in nature.

GRINGLAS: And, Audie, here's a part of the conversation that really stuck with me. Everyone I talked to viewed this political moment as historic and recognized the weight of their votes. But Monnin actually asked for a copy of the full interview we did so he could send it to his daughter as a kind of historical record of this time.

MONNIN: Forty years from now, people are going to ask, what were you - I truly think this is a watershed moment for us as a country, as a democracy. And the ability to be able to have her share that and have her children listen to that, I think, would be a pretty cool thing.

CORNISH: Sam Gringlas, thanks for your reporting.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.