This is the first in a series of stories looking at the people who could cast the most decisive votes in the 2020 election. You can read Dylan Scott’s story on Rust Belt workers here and Li Zhou’s story on Arizona youth here.
Before she got Covid-19, Katie Mazzocco had a plan for every part of her life.
The 34-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two always voted, but she wasn’t involved with political organizing before Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Like thousands of others, Mazzocco was equal parts frightened and energized by Trump’s presidency. Ahead of the 2020 election, she had a plan to make hundreds of calls a day and knock on doors in her Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb — part of a key swing district — to encourage her neighbors to vote this fall.
Now her old life is completely unrecognizable. Mazzocco’s once-packed days are mostly spent in bed, suffering long-term Covid-19 complications that oscillate between brain fog and excruciating chest pains.
“On a daily basis, I’m still trying to hold my body together,” Mazzocco told me in a recent interview. “Some days, I can’t even talk.”
Her once flourishing self-owned business is now on pause. She rarely has the energy to help her 10-year-old twins with their at-home schoolwork. Her husband, a teacher at a local school district, instructs his students from home these days. Mazzocco counts a good day as one where she can walk to the bathroom by herself and brush her teeth, rather than slumped over the shoulder of one of her daughters, her husband, or her mother — who lives with the family to assist with child care, cooking, and cleaning.
“It’s driving me insane because I’m such a go-getter and high achiever,” Mazzocco told me. “Some days my brain is online ... some days it’s like being flattened. It’s agonizing.”
Mazzocco is part of a relatively small group of Covid-19 patients with long-term complications. But she’s one of millions of women across the United States whose working and personal lives have been upended by the pandemic. Vox interviewed several such women around the country and found them organizing from their kitchens and living rooms — deciding the time for complacency is over.
Many of them have stories similar to Mazzocco’s. They were previously engaged voters who paid attention to politics, but Trump’s win made them realize voting alone wasn’t enough. A grassroots army powered by women is developing through their networks of PTA moms, neighbors, and friends.
“I feel like when you activate women, there’s this contagiousness where other women see that and are like, ‘Okay, I can do this too,’” said Claire Reagan, a teacher and mother of two who lives in the suburbs outside the Kansas City metro area.
Organizing is one of the few things Mazzocco can still do from her bed — getting out the vote by texting and writing letters. Her reach is impressive. She estimates she’s texted upward of 10,000 people encouraging them to vote and helping them make a plan, averaging about 100 to 200 conversations each week. And even though life is a daily struggle, Mazzocco is hopeful that this election will bring about real change.
“I think people are excited about it and hoping for change,” she told me. “I want everyone to realize they can be so connected; it’s not that hard.”
Suburban women, once a reliable bloc for Republicans, drove a blue wave for House Democrats in the 2018 midterms. If 2018 was a symbolic rebuke of Trump, pollsters of both parties expect a show of force against Trump from these women in 2020. The lasting effects of the pandemic have only intensified their revolt against the president.
“Common sense suggests that suburban women were skeptical about Trump before the pandemic,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Having their lives utterly disrupted by school closings and trying to help 6- and 7-year-olds learn virtually while also holding down a job has simply exacerbated their preexisting skepticism about Trump.”
Why Trump repels many suburban women
In mid-October, Trump stood onstage in Johnstown, Pennsylvania — about 65 miles away from Pittsburgh — and practically begged suburban women to vote for him.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump pleaded. “I saved your damn neighborhood, okay?”
Trump has good reason to be worried about women in Pennsylvania and other swing states. National and state surveys show that Democratic candidate Joe Biden, on average, is polling around 25 points better than Trump among women (Hillary Clinton polled 14 points ahead of Trump with women in 2016). If Biden’s massive margin holds on Election Day, it would make it the biggest gender gap for a Democratic candidate in history.
Democrats believe they can count on Black women, the party’s most reliable voting bloc. They’re more worried about white women, a group Trump narrowly won in 2016 — driven especially by those without college degrees. White college-educated women voted for Clinton over Trump 51 to 44 percent in 2016, but their support has grown and solidified even more four years later. They prefer Biden by nearly 20 points, according to an early October Fox News poll. A late October Midwestern state poll from Fox contained more bad news for Trump; it showed suburban women preferring Biden by 35 points in Michigan, 29 points in Pennsylvania, and 21 points in Wisconsin.
There’s a simple reason for these numbers. Trump revels in being rude, macho, and chaotic — all things many women voters despise, pollsters told me.
“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.”
Ayres, the Republican pollster, agreed.
“It’s largely Trump’s attitude toward women, his belligerence, his style, and his conduct,” he said.
Trump’s list of insults has gotten so long that the New York Times started counting them (598 insults as of 2019). Lately, the target of the president’s ire is America’s revered top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, whom Trump called a “disaster” and one of a group of “idiots” on a recent call with his campaign staff.
Trump’s rhetoric has gotten to the point where Claire Reagan, the teacher, and her husband keep the television off when their young children are around, to avoid them seeing the president at all.
“I don’t want my children to speak the way the president speaks,” said Reagan, who lives in a conservative-leaning suburb outside the Kansas City metro area. “My kids, they know who Barack Obama is. We want them to see what strong, calm leadership looks like, and I can say the same thing if Mitt Romney had been elected. 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.”
About four years after giving birth to her second child close to the 2016 election, Reagan was determined not to have her third child on November 3, 2020. She told me she had recently pushed back her scheduled C-section until after Election Day.
“I didn’t want to be in the hospital on Election Day,” Reagan said. “I was a billion months pregnant in the 2016 election; ironically, I’m a billion months pregnant right now.” She added, “I just remember how heavy 2016 felt.”
Suburbs like Reagan’s used to be prime Republican territory. The 2018 midterms were the first real wake-up call for the GOP that the suburbs, and white suburban women, were moving away from them.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2010, Democratic candidates lost college-educated white voters by a massive 19 percentage points. During the 2014 midterms, Democrats continued their downward streak with the group, losing them by 16 points (both midterms were banner years for Republicans). But the 2018 midterms saw white suburbanites do a stunning 180-degree turn: White college-educated voters voted for Democratic candidates by 8 points.
“Republicans for the first time in memory lost the suburban vote in 2018,” Ayres told me. “There is no sign at all that they are moving back toward Republicans. If anything, they are voting more strongly for Democrats today.”
The 2018 midterms saw a symbolic rebuke of Trump in the suburbs, giving Democratic House candidates wins even in reach districts in South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
This year, Trump is on the ballot.
Trump has galvanized a movement among suburban women
The story about suburban women in 2020 isn’t just about them voting for a Democratic presidential candidate. It’s about a new wave of women-led grassroots organizing in some of the reddest parts of the country, focused largely on state and local races.
Erin Woods’s foray into organizing in her suburban neighborhood of Leawood, Kansas, really started after the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, threatening to undo the protections for preexisting conditions without which her insurance costs would skyrocket.
Before the ACA, Woods had been rejected from multiple health insurance companies for having had a preexisting condition. She estimates she paid around $40,000 in unnecessary premiums over several years.
“I paid more for myself in premiums than we did for the rest of the family,” Woods told me. “Once I went back and looked at it, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this was a couple years of college.’”
No one in her neighborhood really talked politics before 2016, Woods remembers. But she started having conversations with other parents at PTA meetings and her friends, and then started emailing people encouraging them to call their senators and representatives during the 2017 ACA repeal push in Washington, DC. 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.
It’s turned into a large, spiraling network mostly of women who bring in their friends organically. These networks live in private Facebook groups and text and email chains that light up whenever a new Biden/Harris sign goes up on a neighbor’s front lawn.
Women like Reagan and Anita Parsa, who is friends with Woods and part of her organizing group, described themselves as informed and moderately engaged voters before 2016. Many identify as unaffiliated, supporting individual candidates over any one party. Now they are members of an army of galvanized women organizing from their homes. Some are nursing new babies, while others are watching their kids go off to college.
Rather than telling their friends whom to vote for, these women are just encouraging their friends to vote, period.
“I have gotten to know more women who are involved through my involvement,” said Parsa. “It’s kind of infectious; it gives you permission to talk about stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
These women could leave a mark on their heavily Republican state. Kansas is certainly not considered a swing state. But it is not immune to the political changes of the suburbs — evident in a surprisingly competitive Senate race coming two years after Democrats won the governor’s race and a House seat. One Republican pollster recently told me the suburbs outside Kansas City are “ground zero for suburban women fleeing the president.”
Some of these neighborhoods boast mansions, the homes of doctors and lawyers. They’re traditionally moderate Republican areas, but there are many more signs for Biden, Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier, and local Democratic candidates dotting the manicured lawns these days. Keeping in mind the old politics adage that “yard signs don’t vote,” Reagan noted that she sees more Democratic signs in front of people’s houses compared to Republican ones on the side of the road — a sign that voters casting ballots for Democrats are willing to make a public statement in 2020.
“It’s a country-club-joining, fancy-car-driving neighborhood,” said Parsa, who lives in Mission Hills, a suburban neighborhood outside Kansas City. “I do not think we have shifted dramatically left in this area, I think this is a recognition of how extreme the candidates in the GOP are, and their feckless, fawning allowance of anything Trump wants to do.”
Trump may have spurred their involvement, but these women also recognize they can effect the most change in their local offices. Right now, the main focus for Reagan, Parsa, and Woods is to break the Republican supermajority in the Kansas legislature (there’s little chance of actually flipping it). And with women making up the bulk of this organizing group in Kansas City’s suburbs, there’s also a dream to get more women elected to office — in hopes of addressing issues like education, child care, and health care.
“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 Reagan. “A lot of the local campaigns that I’ve been in contact with, almost all of them are being run by women.”
Trump fundamentally doesn’t understand the suburbs
The second major factor driving the suburban revolt against the Trump-led GOP is the fact that American suburbs are simply a lot more diverse than they used to be. Far from the all-white enclaves of the 1960s and ’70s, America’s suburbs today are diversifying — much like the rest of the country.
“It’s hugely important to understanding how these suburbs are changing,” said Boston College political science professor David Hopkins, who has researched them extensively. Vastly changing suburbs could be the key to Democratic success in Southern and Western states that previously were reliably Republican. Red states like Arizona and Georgia now look to be in play for Democrats in 2020, owing to a combination of diversifying suburbs and moderate white voters turned off by Trump.
A 2015 Brookings Institution report found that nonwhite people represented at least 35 percent of the suburban population in 36 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas. And recent analysis from the New York Times found the number of census tracts with all-white residents in the United States has cratered — going from about 25 percent in 1980 to just 5 percent in 2017, most of which were located in rural areas.
Rather than focusing on health care or education even in the middle of a pandemic, Trump has settled on race-baiting messages about suburban housing and “law and order.”
“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.”
But Trump’s political overtures to American suburbs in 2020 reveal his fundamental misunderstanding about who lives there.
“I think Trump has an understanding of suburbia that comes from kind of a bygone era,” said Hopkins. “When he thinks suburbia, he thinks white people who are scared of Black people in cities, and violence in cities.”
Suburbs today look a lot like the neighborhood of community college professor Daisy Foxx, 65, who lives in a suburban neighborhood outside Fayetteville, North Carolina — another major 2020 swing state where Biden and Trump are statistically tied. Foxx, who is African American, has lived here since 1996. She estimates her neighborhood is majority African American, with the rest of the population composed of Latino and white families.
“It’s just home,” Foxx said. “What matters to me is I have a nice place to stay, a church to go to.”
There are few yard signs for either party in front of the large homes in Foxx’s neighborhood, but she said there’s little doubt whom many people are voting for.
“In my neighborhood we’re very much concerned about Trump and, frankly, getting him out of office,” Foxx told me. “It has a lot to do with Covid-19 and how he’s divided this country. I’ve never seen it so divided. It’s like a sickness in the atmosphere, and it’s just horrific.”
Foxx has never liked Trump. But like so many other women, she’s seen Trump’s lack of leadership around Covid-19 directly impact her life in the past year. Foxx wondered aloud whether she should even put up her Christmas decorations this year, or if she’d see her grandchildren during the holidays. And she was fervent in her desire for white women to match their Black counterparts at the voting booths and cast a ballot for the Biden/Harris ticket.
“African American women have been clear: We know exactly who will do a better job for us and our community,” Foxx said. “I hope my white counterparts are looking at this.”
The political gender gap is cutting into marriages
The historic gender gap between women supporting Biden and men Trump in the polls cuts into everyday life — even some marriages.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake noted the gender gap is “huge” among non-college-educated white men and women.
“You have a record number of non-college-educated married white women married to Trump voters,” Lake said.
Martha, a retired nurse who lives outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, is in one of these politically split marriages (she declined to give her last name due to privacy concerns). Martha told me she used to be a Republican and voted third-party in the 2016 election. Her husband, she says, didn’t really pay much attention to politics until he found Trump in 2016. This year, she’s voting for Biden and her husband is sticking staunchly with Trump. Politics has become a toxic subject in her household.
“In a lot of ways he’s a very good man, but we don’t talk about politics at all,” Martha told me. “When we do, we fight. We argue terribly. I have gone to a couple marches; I told my husband I was going to them. He didn’t say anything. I can’t sit and phone bank because he would be sitting here judging me.”
Martha was suspicious of Trump from the get-go, believing in 2016 that the Republican candidate was a “con man.” But it’s not just Trump’s character she finds problematic; as someone who grew up low-income and relied on government support, she is deeply opposed to Republican efforts to dismantle the social safety net. She also disagrees with Trump’s actions to seal off the border to immigrants seeking asylum and dislikes the president’s trade wars with other countries.
“I think he has diminished our country in the world because of his separatist policies,” she said. “It started out as a character thing, but it’s evolved into both.”
The thing Martha struggles to understand the most is why her husband and other formerly close friends who support Trump defend him like he’s a member of their family, rather than a politician.
“Is [Trump] more important to you than me?” she remembered asking her husband once. “He just looked at me; he didn’t answer me.”