Trump's suburban collapse and the widening 'gender chasm'
Remember when all we ever heard about were former Democrats who defected to vote for Donald Trump in 2016? Would they really stick with Trump? Could Democrats ever win them back? Political reporters spent a solid three years perseverating over nothing but disaffected Democrats who might be permanently wed to the GOP moving forward.
Well, good news—political reporters are now looking elsewhere for their dog-bites-man electoral stories. The new shiny objects of 2020 are the once reliably pro-Republican suburbs turning on Trump. As we saw in the 2018 midterms, if enough college-educated GOP voters run toward Democrats, they can neutralize and, in some critical states, more than offset non-college white Democrats who gravitated toward Trump in 2016.
But following Democrats’ historic rout in the midterms—largely due to white college-educated voters abandoning GOP candidates—analysts questioned whether what we were seeing was a momentary blip intended to send a message or a more permanent realignment of the voting bloc with Democrats. Now, just months before Election Day, all available qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests white college-educated voters are sticking with Democrats for the foreseeable future.
Take Katey Morse of one-time GOP stronghold East Grand Rapids, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids, the state's second largest city after Detroit. Morse, who reluctantly voted Trump in 2016, can't wait to get back in that voting booth to end "this nightmare," according to MSNBC reporter Dasha Burns.
Morse was one of three "EGR" Republicans who spoke with Burns Thursday for the outlet's "County by County" series. Morse is down on Trump's handling of the coronavirus, but she's particularly appalled by his law and order appeal to so-called "Suburban Housewives."
"We aren't suburban moms, we aren't 1950s housewives anymore," Morse said during the discussion Thursday, singling out Trump's "defund the police" scare tactic. "To make us think that we're going to be, you know... we're going to all of a sudden be overrun in our communities by all these bad people is ludicrous," she said.
The other two male panelists were still wavering. Hal Ostrow said he was leaning Joe Biden but hoping his VP pick would be a bit more moderate than Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, for instance. The other voter, Jerry (didn't catch his last name) was troubled by Trump's "bravado" on coronavirus but said he might not make a final decision until Election Day.
East Grand Rapids has seesawed back and forth over the last several presidential cycles, going for Barack Obama in '08 by 9 points—the first Democratic win there since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But in 2012, Mitt Romney carried the city by 3 points before it flipped back to favoring Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016 by a whopping 25 points.
The modest suburb matters in the bigger picture of whether Trump is able to carry Kent County, the state's fourth most populace. Trump narrowly took the county by just 3 points in 2016 after Romney won it by 8 points in 2012 and Obama squeaked out a victory there by less than a point in 2008. This year, the Trump campaign has already pulled TV ads from Michigan as Biden holds a solid 7.5-point advantage, if not higher.
But whether it's Trump's response to Black Lives Matter, his dreadful handling of the pandemic, or his effort to turn cities like Portland into a police state, he's turning off white college-educated voters in droves. Similar demographic dynamics are playing out in state after state and poll after poll. Quinnipiac's poll of Maine this week found Biden winning a commanding 77% of white college-educated voters (and Sara Gideon, Democratic challenger of Sen. Susan Collins, winning 70% of them), according to analyst Ron Brownstein. That's a big double-digit improvement over Hillary Clinton, who still carried the state's white college-educated voters by 59% in 2016.
Nationwide, Trump won the suburbs over Clinton in 2016 by 5 points, 50% - 45%, according to exit polling. But recent polling shows Biden now winning the suburbs by historic margins. Biden was up 9 points, 52% - 43% in last month's ABC News/Washington Post poll. And July polling from other outlets like Fox News, Quinnipiac University, and NPR/PBS/Marist gave Biden an even stronger double-digit lead among suburban voters.
But it's Trump's appeal to white suburban women that has fallen absolutely flat, in part, because America’s suburbs are much more diverse than Trump’s distinctly ‘50s eras view of them. The Trump campaign kicked off its "Women for Trump" coalition last summer in the Philadelphia suburbs with Lara Trump heading up the initiative. Though the campaign saw the area as friendly territory for Trump to pick up votes, it's not going so well a year later, according to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The campaign has been running TV ads in the Philadelphia market pushing ominous Black Lives Matter and "defund the police" narratives. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America," they warn, a consistent theme for the campaign.
Yet in the 1st Congressional District, which includes the Bucks County suburbs, Trump has lost ground from where he was in 2016. Clinton beat Trump in the district by just 2 points in 2016 but now Trump is trailing Biden by 9 points there, according to a July poll released by the campaign of incumbent GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
In the Delaware County suburbs, 59-year-old JoAnne, a lifelong Republican who recently became a registered Democrat, said she wasn't big on Trump's "suburban housewives" pitch. Like many women, she worked a full-time job while raising her kids. But it's not Biden who worries her now that she's retired.
In JoAnne’s view, Trump has "totally mishandled" the coronavirus. She has only been able to see her grandchildren three times since March. "I don't feel safe," she told the Inquirer.
JoAnne is exactly the type of voter with whom GOP strategist and anti-Trumper Sarah Longwell has been conducting regular focus groups for the past several years. Longwell, who has taken to calling Trump's gender gap the “gender chasm,” told the Washington Post she watched both college- and non-college-educated women who voted for Trump in 2016 turn on him in real time during the early months of the pandemic.
When the crisis began, Longwell said these women kept an open mind since Trump clearly couldn't have controlled whether a global pandemic emerged on his watch. But as the pandemic took hold of the country and they followed Trump's White House task force briefings in March and April, they soured on him entirely. Trump proved to be anything but the competent businessman they had believed him to be when they cast a vote for him.
From there, it just got worse, as many of the women worked to coordinate care for their children and sometimes their elderly parents too. Now many of them are trying to determine whether it's safe to send their kids back to school and, if not, find a Plan B.
“The thing I hear the most is, ‘I just want clarity. I just want somebody to tell us what is going on truthfully,’ ” Longwell told the Post. “And they feel like that’s not happening, that there’s no leadership.” Naturally, Trump has taken to demonizing any medical expert who dares to level with Americans about the dire state of the pandemic. As a result, only about a third of the public now trusts what Trump says on the issue.
The good news is, Trump doesn’t have one iota of the leadership skills necessary to resuscitate his image and woo these voters back to his corner by November. The bad news is, he’s still president... for now.