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.
Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Pennsylvania — 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 wannabe 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.
Texas could be in play
Midterm election results hint Texas could be in play in the 2020 presidential election. Former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rouke lost by less than 3 percentage points to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in a statewide race, and Democrats flipped two GOP seats in the state’s congressional delegation. The results showed that rural and small-town Texas is still solid red, but the growing urban centers are blue and their suburban neighbors trending that way.
O’Rouke is striving to leverage his noteworthy Senate effort into a longshot bid for president. A Robert Kennedy look-alike, he stresses the need for national unity to heal the fractured American political landscape.
Dara Llorens, 49, of Palestine, agrees the country needs fixing, and she doesn’t care if it is a Republican or Democrat who leads the charge. “We need to unite,” she said. “There’s too much infighting. We need to stop these investigations and work together with what we have moving forward.”
The child of a Mexican immigrant father and an American mother, Llorens opposes a border wall, favors immigration reform and wants expanded education opportunities for the disadvantaged, including fixing the student loan debt problem.
“We’re a first-world nation and college has become an unattainable luxury to the majority of people,” she said. “In Mexico, students attend college almost free; here, I’ve been accepted for my master’s program but can’t afford to go.”
In Huntsville, retired oil field worker Lynn Alexander mirrors the Lone Star State’s Republican dominance. The Democrats, he said, “need to get out of the way” and let the president implement his agenda of a southern border wall, economic growth and rejection of stricter gun control laws.
“He is a businessman and he knows what he is doing,” said Alexander. “The Mueller report showed there was no collusion. I feel the Democrats are on a witch hunt right now. They are trying to impeach President Trump instead of focusing on what matters, which is jobs and immigration.”
Midwest, South strong for Trump
The CNHI survey of voters in the heart of the ruby red Midwest and South showed sustained strength for Trump. Small town and rural voters see him as a president who has stood up for their belief in God, guns, jobs and a Mexican border wall.
Ronnie Wood, co-owner of the Flat Top Arms store in Beckley, West Virginia, said he’s seen an increase in business from the influx of pipeline workers due to relaxed government environmental regulations. “We really appreciate them,” he said. “It helps us. They’re good working people.”
Still, there are outspoken Trump critics in Kentucky and elsewhere in the South even if opinion polls and political traditions don’t reflect it. One example is Billy Ray Wilson of London, Kentucky, who believes Trump should be impeached for committing serious crimes.
“He has caused damage to this country,” said Wilson. “He has no regard for the people, he has no idea what the Constitution is.”
Wilson made his comments as a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, a decade as a contractor in the Middle East, and six years in the Department of Veterans Affairs. That public service, he said, underscored the importance of the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.
That’s also the hope of Democrats in the Deep South states of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama if Paul Ransom of Valdosta, Georgia, remains representative of the mainstay attitude among voters no matter their party.
Ransom, 85, is an African American Democrat who believes Trump is “as good as we’ve ever had as far as the economy goes. He’s a money man. He’s got a lot of good points. Morally, he’s a little corrupt but financially there’s probably not many knives in the drawer that’s sharper than him.”
Evie Adams, 19, a cosmetologist from Union, Mississippi, will cast her first presidential vote. She expects candidates for the highest office in the land to be honest. “They need to do good things for people but they also need to be realistic,” she said. “I feel like some of them are trying a little too hard by promising free college and health care. Is that realistic? How can you really find all the money to do that?”
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 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, onetime 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.”
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.
Partisan battles over congressional investigations into the findings have dominated Washington since the report’s release April 18.
Iowa, New Hampshire in February
The Feb. 3, 2020, Iowa caucuses will provide the first breakdown of the top-tier Democratic candidates. Those who do poorly traditionally drop out for lack of money. Biden, polls show, is currently favored to emerge with the plurality of the caucus votes.
Eight days later, on Feb. 11, New Hampshire stages the nation’s first presidential primary, an outsized contest in a small population state where walking about, door-knocking and pressing the flesh rather than flashy ad campaigns can determine the outcome.
Ruby Shabazz, an African American Democrat from Nashua, New Hampshire, said she wants a presidential nominee who can foil Trump’s re-election bid. She said Trump has set race relations in the country back decades.
“As a woman of color, I’m really concerned about how people are being treated across the country,” said Shabazz. “I’m hoping to learn about how the (Democratic) candidates would address that.”
Whoever wins will get a momentum boost — but not necessarily enough to capture the Democratic nomination. In 2016, Bernie Sanders outpolled Hillary Clinton by 22 points only to lose the race in the end. Trump likewise won decisively in New Hampshire, and the push carried him all the way to the White House despite losing by 2,000 votes to Clinton in the state’s general election.
Traditionally a Republican state, New Hampshire has leaned more Democratic in recent years. Currently, the state’s U.S. senators and two House representatives are Democrats. The governor is a Republican.