The 2020 election won’t swing based on one state or one voter demographic. Suburban women, Rust Belt industrial workers, and Black and Latinx Americans will all play a pivotal role in deciding the next president of the United States.
Vox reporters interviewed dozens of voters to find out how they think about the race between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and what issues are important to them as they make their choice.
We found a group of voters who are united by their exhaustion — whether it was with Trump himself, national politics, the deadly and devastating Covid-19 pandemic, or police violence in their communities.
But many of these voters were also energized to do something about it.
“I think people are excited about it and hoping for change,” Pennsylvania voter and organizer Katie Mazzocco told Vox. Mazzocco wasn’t just emotionally exhausted; she’s a Covid-19 long-hauler, stricken with symptoms that swing between brain fog one day and excruciating chest pains the next.
Mazzocco’s personal life was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, but she’s still organizing from her sickbed, sending tens of thousands of texts encouraging others in her swing district to go out and vote in the 2020 election.
And she’s not alone. All over the country, we heard from voters just like her.
“It’s an obligation to vote this year,” Darylette Parker, a first-time voter in Illinois, told Vox. “With Covid and all the crises that have been going on lately that have affected our everyday lives. I feel like we have to have good leadership.”
After months of reporting, here are the eight lessons we took away.
This election is about Trump
Love him or hate him, the 2020 election is about one man: President Donald Trump.
Many people we spoke to cited Trump’s policies, like his handling of the pandemic, push to repeal Obamacare, hardline immigration policies, or openly racist rhetoric, as motivation to vote.
But something else brought these voters together: They didn’t like how Trump acted — whether it was his willingness to degrade women, calling African nations “shithole countries,” mocking those with disabilities, or calling the nation’s top infectious disease expert a “disaster.”
Trump revels in being rude, macho, and chaotic, and he has his entire career. These may be traits his supporters love, but they’re also what make so many voters think of Trump as unpresidential — and it elevates their desire to vote him out of office.
“I don’t want my children to speak the way the president speaks,” said Claire Reagan, a teacher and mother of two living in a conservative-leaning suburb outside the Kansas City metro area. “It’s been very difficult to navigate how we expose our children to national politics. It’s not something I think will enrich my children’s understanding of how people who make the rules behave.”
This wasn’t a partisan thing, Reagan emphasized. She wanted her children to see what “strong, calm leadership looks like,” and could see those qualities in both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — but not Trump.
Chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County Christopher Walton told Vox that Black voters in his area are “just enraged” at Trump.
Republican and Democratic pollsters alike told Vox that Trump’s brash personality was turning off legions of women, particularly college-educated women.
“It’s largely Trump’s attitude toward women, his belligerence, his style, and his conduct,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Vox.
“They really didn’t like Donald Trump’s personal style; they thought he was a bully, they thought he was divisive,” said veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advises Biden’s campaign. “They hate chaos. Suburban women really want stability.”
The same could be said for older voters, a key and historically conservative bloc that polls show Biden capturing by double digits in some states. Older voters have seen more presidents in action. The polls could be telling us that many voters over 65 just don’t like Trump’s extremely unconventional presidency, marked by a daily barrage of tweetstorms and increased political polarization that has made some break off longtime friendships.
“Part of why they turned away from Trump is there’s too much shaking up in Washington,” Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray told Vox.
Over the spring and summer, pundits fretted over polls showing Joe Biden’s seeming enthusiasm gap compared to Trump, with the president’s supporters expressing more eagerness to vote for their candidate than Biden’s were for him.
Sure, Trump may have had higher enthusiasm among his base, but the real story of the election may be how the president inspired so much enthusiasm against him.
The day before the election, America’s early vote tally stood at 99.5 million ballots cast — well over two-thirds of the entire number of votes cast in the 2016 election. That could be chalked up to states expanding their early vote and vote-by-mail programs, but there’s no question Trump also motivates people to vote.
Covid-19 and health care are key issues
Robert Noftz is a lifelong Republican. He was a Trump skeptic in 2016, but he decided he would be optimistic when the president took office. He liked a lot of what he saw in the first few years of the Trump administration: anti-abortion policies (Noftz describes himself as a staunchly pro-life Christian) and a healthy economy. By late 2019, he was prepared to vote for Trump’s reelection, a persuadable Republican brought back into the fold.
“Then the Covid thing hit,” Noftz told Vox, “and I saw the way he behaved.”
All of his worst fears were realized. Trump challenged the expertise of medical professionals. He rushed to reopen the economy before it was safe. Noftz said he has a word for “really arrogant men who are stupid or don’t know what they’re talking about.” He calls them “roosters.”
He’s come to believe during the Covid-19 crisis that Trump is a rooster. “I think we should have been listening to the medical experts,” Noftz said.
The US public has strongly opposed Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis: 57 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the response, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. There are sharp disparities depending on political party, but approval of Trump’s Covid-19 response among Republicans is still meaningfully lower (83 percent) than his overall job approval rating with his party.
Trump’s problems on health care are bigger than the Covid-19 pandemic, though that has dominated the last year of his term. He started his presidency trying and failing to repeal Obamacare, which is beginning to see record-high public approval numbers. His administration is currently supporting litigation to overturn the law, without having a plan to replace if the lawsuit is successful. More than 20 million people could lose coverage if Obamacare is invalidated by the Supreme Court.
“There’s no backup plan,” Tony Totty, a union leader in Toledo, told Vox. “If he gets his way — and with the new Supreme Court justice, he very well could — 20 million Americans will fall off the roll of health care.”
Polls show health care and the coronavirus are right behind the economy as the most important issues to voters. Strong majorities trust Biden more than Trump to handle both the pandemic and other health issues like protecting people with preexisting conditions, according to an October Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Health care has been perhaps the most animating political issue of the past decade. At first, it was a boon for Republicans. But the politics have flipped. Now, it could spell the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s racism really is shaping the race
Trump’s racism and xenophobia have undergirded much of his rhetoric — and policy decisions — and these stances are a huge factor in why voters have turned away from him.
The list of racist statements Trump has made is long: He’s refused to condemn white supremacists, referred to Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists,” encouraged violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, and referred to the coronavirus as “kung flu,” among numerous other incidents.
“What has pushed me the furthest away is he’s become a symbol of hate for my community,” says Kassandra Alvarez, a Phoenix-based voter.
Trump’s racism has also directly translated to his policies. That includes the promise to build a wall along the southern border, repeated attempts to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which shields undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation — and the undoing of guidance that protect students from discriminatory treatment in schools. Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus has also disproportionately affected people of color, who have died of Covid-19 at higher rates.
“People are angry,” said Christopher Walton, the chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County. “There’s a white-hot focus on being mad because of everything going on the economy, coronavirus, with all the racial injustice that’s happening. And the pinpoint of all of it is Donald Trump.”
Trump’s economic pitch isn’t working where it counts
Trump has positioned himself as a savior of industry, and as the only candidate able to provide minorities — particularly Black Americans — with the resources they need to live prosperous lives.
In Michigan this week, he bragged about bringing five Japanese car manufacturers to the state, and about revitalizing the industrial sector, telling his supporters that Biden “will eviscerate your auto industry. It will be terrible.”
This chasm between the president’s rhetoric and reality was familiar to the workers Vox spoke with in Ohio. There, union leaders lamented Trump telling workers at a struggling GM plant in Lordstown he would make sure they were fine, and that their factory stayed open. Two years later, the plant closed, and 1,400 people lost their jobs. Some received transfers. Others did not.
“Some of them were Trump supporters,” Totty, the union president from Toledo, said. “They don’t support him anymore. They felt betrayed. They felt lied to.”
Trump has made similar grand promises to Black Americans, saying that in a second term he would prioritize them (though he did not during his first). And he recently unveiled a “Platinum Plan for Black Americans.”
Economic promises are front and center in the plan — it starts with a commitment to “uplift Black communities across the country through a $500 billion investment.” That money, the Trump campaign promised, would fund 3 million new Black jobs, 500,000 new Black businesses, increased Black homeownership, support for historically Black colleges and universities, and new opportunities for Black churches to receive federal dollars.
Trump hasn’t explained where this money would come from, or how he might get Congress to go along with such a large outlay.
And it hasn’t won him over a large swath of Black fans. His national support among Black Americans tends to be around 10 percent or less in polls.
“He’s talking about giving money, that’s cool,” D’Angelo Crosby, a junior at Morehouse College said. “But money, to me, is the root of all evil. And the reason being is because after the money, what’s the action that’s done to actually help these Black people?”
Until recently, Crosby was an undecided voter — and as a Black man is part of a group Trump managed to eke out some small gains with. It’s a group the president has worked hard to gain favor with in the final days before the election, trotting out endorsements from figures like Lil Wayne and repeatedly — and falsely — claiming “Joe Biden constantly used the term ‘Super Predator’ when referring to young Black Men.”
But looking at Trump’s economic plan for Black Americans turned Crosby off. It seemed to him that Trump felt “money is just the solution to all your problems and the solution to racism — that just sounds ridiculous.”
Crosby did say that the Black Trump backers he knew cited financial reasons behind their support. And Totty noted that some of his members will probably quietly vote for Trump. But a fair number, including some who voted for the president in 2016, will either cast ballots for Biden or not vote at all.
Trump, behind in nearly all national polls, can’t let Black undecided voters like Crosby and working-class voters in states like Ohio and Michigan slip through his fingers. In many ways, they were Trump’s to lose: Crosby is no fan of Sen. Kamala Harris, and found Biden’s record underwhelming. The ranks of industrial workers are full of those who once happily placed their faith in Trump.
But he has managed to lose them anyway. Trump’s message — that he creates jobs and empowers communities — doesn’t reflect reality. Not for the 1 million Black Americans who are experiencing the worst unemployment rate of any ethnic group. And not for the thousands of workers who have seen factories shuttered. For them, that message is obviously hollow.
Trump’s version of “law and order” isn’t resonating with voters
Trump has spent a lot of time in 2020 declaring himself to be the candidate who represents “LAW AND ORDER.”
But there was a time when Biden was that candidate. As a senator, Biden spent the 1980s and ’90s writing and co-sponsoring “tough on crime” legislation that culminated with the now-maligned 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Those bills provided funds for more state prisons and larger police departments, and instituted broader and harsher penalties for drug offenses. Now they are seen as having led to a disproportionate number of Black Americans being imprisoned, but at the time, they were praised — including by Black Americans.
And Biden knew this, bragging on the floor of the Senate in 1993: “The truth is every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the state of Delaware: Joe Biden.”
Times have changed: Americans don’t feel the same way about crime that they did in the ’90s. Biden seems to know this. Trump doesn’t seem to.
“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trump tweeted in August. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”
Trump’s political overtures to America’s suburbs reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about who exactly his audience is. Trump’s vision of the suburbs seems to be the all-white enclaves of the 1960s and ’70s. But American suburbs are a lot more diverse than they used to be. The political power of Black and Latinx residents in suburban areas in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Texas is nudging those states further toward Democrats.
“I think Trump has an understanding of suburbia that comes from kind of a bygone era,” said Boston College political science professor David Hopkins, who has researched America’s suburbs extensively. Hopkins added that in the 1970s and ’80s, people on both sides of the aisle saw the growth of American suburbs as people fleeing crime and drugs in cities. Trump’s view seems to still be grounded in that image.
“When he thinks suburbia, he thinks white people who are scared of Black people in cities, and violence in cities,” Hopkins added.
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A little movement on the margins matters a lot
White voters without a college degree, particularly men, were Trump’s strongest base in 2016, and it looks like that will hold true in 2020. It’s tempting to think, then, that nothing has changed. But Trump’s support may be eroding slightly with that demographic — and such a shift, even a small one, could have huge electoral implications.
Trump needs to expand his margins with these voters to make up for his losses in the suburbs. But instead, his support appears to be dropping. He took 63 percent of white voters without a college degree in Ohio in 2016; a recent Fox News poll from Ohio found him below 60 percent with whites without a college degree and effectively tied with Biden among all voters, down from his 8-point win in 2016. A separate Baldwin Wallace University poll put Trump at 52 percent with those voters in the state, while he barely holds on to a 2-point lead statewide.
Trump’s support has dropped with these working-class voters even more in the critical swing state of Wisconsin. Trump won white non-college voters in that state by nearly 30 points in 2016; a new Fox poll that showed Biden ahead statewide found Trump up by only 5 points with those voters. (Baldwin Wallace University found the same trend in the state, with Biden up 2.) The same seems true in Pennsylvania, where his 32-point lead among whites without a college degree has shrunk by almost half, according to a different Fox survey. (And Baldwin Wallace has Trump’s lead down to 5.)
“In the facility, things have changed,” Totty, the Toledo union leader, said. “You don’t get the Trump supporters talking him up as much anymore.”
North Carolina, another important swing state home to a lot of white voters without a college degree, is also instructive. The exurban communities that are farther from the cities tend to be more solidly Republican. Trump won 65 percent of the vote in those places in 2016, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr won 63 percent. Both won the state, Trump by 5 and Burr by 6.
But even a slight underperformance by Republicans in those communities can make a difference in North Carolina. Former Gov. Pat McCrory won 61 percent of this exurban vote, a little bit lower than Trump and Burr, and he lost to Democrat Roy Cooper. With Cooper holding a big edge in the cities and suburbs, winning a few of those voters was just enough to give the Democrat the statewide win.
“That small percentage [of ticket splitters] can decide an election,” Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, said. “But it’s a smaller and smaller slice.”
There are few hardcore Biden stans — but he’s got a lot of support anyway
For many voters, Biden was not necessarily their top choice, but their only one.
Laser-focused on getting Trump out of office, voters said they’re supporting the moderate Democrat to do just that, even if they remain skeptical about aspects of his track record. “He’s not my first choice, or my second, but I think he’s someone we can work with,” said Alvarez, a Phoenix-based voter.
Biden’s decades of public service — while a notable asset — have prompted scrutiny throughout his campaign, particularly from younger voters of color. His authorship of the punitive 1994 crime bill and his past stances on immigration policies including “sanctuary cities” are among the positions that voters have expressed concerns about. His campaign’s seeming focus on a “return to normalcy” hasn’t always been the most energizing either.
“I don’t care how good you are at basketball, if you go play for the Chicago Bulls you’re gonna be measured up against Michael Jordan,” says Kevin Jones, the first vice chair of the Nash County Democratic Party. “I think for the rest of my lifetime, we will measure up every Democratic presidential candidate against Barack Obama ... and Joe Biden, you know, can’t be Jordan.”
Voter after voter, however, emphasized that their top priority is ousting Trump. And while Biden may not be their favorite, many are fully committed to backing him out of necessity.
Trump may have inspired lasting energy at the local level
Trump’s rise to power has gotten grassroots Democrats to organize like few other things could. But some Democratic organizers fear the party on the whole will be lulled into a sense of complacency if Biden wins in 2020.
They have reason to worry. In the postmortem of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, Democrats recognized that their bench-building outside of the White House and federal races was abysmal: They had been chasing the big races and ignoring a whole host of state and local positions. The result? Republicans controlled two-thirds of state legislatures before 2018 (Democrats flipped eight state chambers that year and broke Republican supermajorities in three more states).
“The state legislatures are probably just as important as the presidency,” Harvard professor and political scientist Theda Skocpol told Vox in 2019. “In a lot of ways, they’re the whole ballgame.”
But in the runup to 2020, Vox reporters spoke to people across the country who were activated to organize politically. They weren’t just doing it for Biden; in fact, many were more focused on local races in their states or cities.
“We are actually seeing a lot of people taking more interest in the local races,” said Peggy West-Schroder, the statewide campaign coordinator for the Wisconsin-based civil rights group Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. “Understanding that obviously the presidency is very important, but honestly I don’t feel like it’s a key draw anymore.”
In a year that has seen nationwide protests stemming from the deaths of Black men often at the hands of police and has spurred conversation about police reform, West-Schroder said activists are realizing the most immediate reforms can come at the local level.
Organizing is also happening in redder states, propelled especially by white suburban women who are repelled by Trump’s behavior. Vox spoke to several of these women in the Kansas City metro area, each of whom had different reasons for getting involved in organizing — the 2017 Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and finding out about restrictive voting laws in their home state.
For instance, Erin Woods of Leawood, Kansas, started emailing people encouraging them to call their federal representatives during the 2017 ACA repeal push. Her email list morphed into a physical group of 20 friends who also wanted to get engaged in politics. It has since grown to about 150 people who make phone calls, do literature drops, and write postcards to encourage others to vote, Woods estimates.
Rather than telling their friends whom to vote for, these women are just encouraging their friends to vote, period. Trump may have helped spur their involvement, but these women also recognize they can effect the most change in their local offices.
“It’s not that the men aren’t there, but if you’re reading the room, a lot of the people doing the work right now are women,” said Woods’s co-organizer Claire Reagan. “A lot of the local campaigns that I’ve been in contact with, almost all of them are being run by women.”