Despite the inflammatory mixture of fact, fear and lies that has woven its way deeply into America’s body politic, there are few signs of significantly shifting attitudes in the heartland on who should be elected the nation’s president in 2020.
The critical states that gave President Donald Trump the margin of Electoral College victory in 2016 are again uncertain, as thorny issues such as tariff-induced trade wars, immigration contretemps and the Mueller investigation have rattled voters.
Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin — with their collective 70 electoral votes — could again decide if Trump is given a second term or if the nation moves to whomever the Democrats select from a field of 23 potential challengers.
It depends on who you talk to in those states.
Depressed corn and soybean markets could make a difference in rural areas, which went all in for Trump last time, some say. Whether that concern is sufficient to offset the perceptions of an otherwise rosy economy is anyone’s guess.
Another important factor is the political tenets of the eventual Democratic nominee. They range from far left to moderate among the aspirants.
These are general impressions of the current political landscape in more than 20 Rust Belt, Midwest and Southern states served by CNHI newspapers that have participated in the company’s periodic “Pulse of the Voters” project since the 2016 election.
Reporters walked precincts, knocked on doors, met with voters in their living rooms, their kitchens and elsewhere, engaging them in conversation about their views heading into another presidential election cycle.
In Oklahoma, where Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016, Tahlequah resident Patrick Parker said it is hard to trust either side at this point. He described Trump as the “Jar Jar Binks of presidents,” a reference to the fictional “Star Wars” character who was both loved and hated.
Pennsylvania in play
Of the must-win states, Pennsylvania seemed most susceptible to swing from Trump to Democrat. Native son Joe Biden’s entry into the party’s swarm of candidates has so far made a difference. The most recent state polls showed Biden, Obama’s vice president for two terms, leading Trump by 11 points.
Dressed in a gray polo shirt with a United Mine Workers of America logo, John Kline spoke from his dining room table in Nicktown, one-time mining and steelmaking citadel in western Pennsylvania. He said Biden could break Trump’s stranglehold on rural voters in the state if he runs from the political middle and strives to end partisan bickering by bringing people together.
“I believe moderate people — Democrat and Republican — drive this country,” said Kline. “Extreme left, extreme right, you can see what’s going on around us.”
Brothers Jim and John Ferguson, retired math teachers, sat drinking coffee and talking politics outside a café overlooking Scranton’s Courthouse Square in northeast Pennsylvania. They agreed Trump could lose the state and said they’d gladly vote for Biden if he wins the Democratic nomination.
Jim Ferguson said he’s bothered by the president’s penchant for lying and contradicting himself and his subordinates. “He goes and leaks the news that he’s considering sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East and then when it’s reported, he says it’s not true. You don’t know what to believe.”
Still, he added, the president’s core isn’t giving up on him. “The sheer number of Democrats running to challenge Trump is making it difficult for opposition to the president to consolidate behind one candidate.”
Among that core is Jackie Leon, owner of Headhunters hair salon in Scranton. A Democrat-turned-Republican, she voted for Trump in 2016 and likes him cracking down on liberal immigration policies. “There’s some bad people,” she said. “You’re getting killers and everything.”
Rural Pennsylvania delivered Trump’s victory last time, and Monday night it was the site of his latest political rally in the borough of Montoursville near Williamsport. He accused Biden of abandoning Pennsylvania for Delaware, where he served seven terms as a U.S. Senator.
“He left you for another state, and he didn’t take care of you, because he didn’t take care of your jobs,” said Trump. “He let other countries come in and rip off America. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Trump’s message won’t move Marissa McIntire, 24, mother of a toddler and a pro-choice advocate. She said defeating Trump “is not an option, it’s a necessity — for women everywhere, for minorities everywhere, for everyone whose voice over the past almost three years now has just been muted.”
McIntire works as a breastfeeding counselor for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She proudly wore a “March On” T-shirt purchased at a thrift store.
“My biggest thing is that we’re back in this timeframe where women are treated as property yet again,” she said.
Drake Parker, 54, also of Meadville, doesn’t buy the argument that as a black voter he should reject the president. He said he voted for Trump last time and expects to do so again.
“I’ll get backlash for that,” said Parker, president of the local NAACP chapter. He said Trump voters are willing to put aside his character — “which leaves much to be desired, and the way he carries himself” — because of the strong economy. “He’s done a phenomenal job, in my opinion,” said Parker.
Few voters acknowledged reading special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a report that cleared Trump and his campaign of conspiring with the Russians but also cited instances of possible obstruction of justice by the president in trying to shut down the inquiry.