OCTOBER 11, 2020
Peg Bohnert, an Arizona retiree, voted for Donald Trump in 2016 because she thought the businessman would transform the White House into “a well-run machine.”
Ruth Mierzwa, a Pennsylvania business owner, was turned off by both main contenders and opted for a third-party candidate.
Roman Uglehus, a North Carolina college student, has never bothered to cast a ballot.
All have decided they will vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden this time, choices they say were either made or reinforced in recent weeks as Trump has stumbled through a disastrous stretch that has included embarrassing leaks, a ridiculed debate performance and a Rose Garden ceremony that became a superspreader for a deadly virus.
In the homestretch of the 2020 campaign, there has been little good news for the incumbent. And that is showing up as an ominous turn for him in the polls as Biden consolidates support. What had been a steady national lead for Biden in the high single digits during the late summer has expanded to 12 points in early October, according to a Washington Post polling average.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday fits with the trend, putting Biden at 54 percent nationally and Trump at 42, a 12-point lead that is similar to the 10-point advantage Biden held in a September survey. While key battleground-state polls have shown a somewhat closer contest, the trajectory has been clear.
“These are not gigantic shifts, but when you were already down, it makes it even tougher,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “What was bad has gotten worse for the president.”
Four years ago, voters who decided in the presidential campaign’s waning days broke decisively for Trump, a political newcomer, delivering him a shock victory. This year, evidence suggests there are few who have yet to make up their minds. But many of those who had been on the fence appear to be coming down on Biden’s side.
The shift is evident in Borick’s hometown, Nazareth, Pa. The onetime Democratic stronghold of working-class White voters shifted to Trump in 2016 and helped deliver him the state. That year, Borick said, Main Street was a sea of Trump flags and signs, with hardly a Hillary Clinton sign in sight.
This year, the Trump paraphernalia is back. But in recent weeks, it’s been overshadowed by Biden signs sprouting from front yards and shop windows.
“What does that mean? It’s one street in one town,” he said. “But walking my dog, this time around sure looks a lot different than it did in 2016.”
It looks different to many voters, as well, with Biden appearing to consolidate the support of those turned off by Trump in a way that Clinton didn’t.
Among voters who backed a third-party candidate in 2016, for instance, about half — 49 percent — currently support the Democratic nominee this time around. Just over a quarter — 26 percent — say they intend to choose Trump, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Mierzwa, a resident of Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, is among those who couldn’t bring herself to pull the lever for either major-party candidate in 2016.
“I couldn’t stand Trump, and I couldn’t stand Hillary,” she said.
The small-business owner ended up voting for the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, as Trump flipped her county from blue to red.
But this year, the registered Republican said she is determined to vote for Biden. It’s a choice, she said, that has become clearer than ever in recent weeks.
“Trump is just so scary at this point that I don’t think I can waste my vote on a third party,” she said. “It just keeps getting worse. From his pick for the Supreme Court to his racist comments to his degrading anyone who doesn’t agree with him to his handling of the virus. I can go on and on.”
Biden, by contrast, is “honorable.” Even if she doesn’t agree with him on some of the issues, she feels strongly enough about supporting him that she planted a campaign lawn sign in her yard this week — the first time she’s done that for any candidate.
Ralph Willard, a 77-year-old retired management consultant and a lifelong Republican, is also breaking from long-standing tradition this year. He hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, a decision he still regrets.
In 2016, he opted for a Republican, but not the party’s nominee, writing in Mitt Romney’s name. The resident of Cary, N.C., just outside Raleigh, finds Trump unsuited not just for the presidency, but for most any position.
“He’s dangerous,” Willard said. “I think he’s just horrible.”
Until recently, he had planned to take the write-in route again.
But about a week ago, during a family dinner, his 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, urged him to reconsider: “She looked at me with almost tears and said, ‘Will you please cast your vote for me?’ ”
Willard finds Biden mediocre “but safe, reasonable.” So, for the first time in more than half a century, he’ll vote for a Democrat for president. “I hope the sky doesn’t come crashing down,” he said.
Not all late-breaking decisions have gone Biden’s way.
Emily Holland works the night shift for the emergency response system in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County and has been undecided for months. She is still thinking, but from what she saw in Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate, she is leaning toward Trump.
“I voted for Trump last time, and I think that he is trying to help,” she said.
Still, the 28-year-old has real misgivings, especially over his demeanor and behavior. “I think the country is so divided by how opinionated he is and how vulgar he is,” she said.
The divisions extend to Holland’s family. Her father’s side of the family is for Trump. Her mother’s side is for Biden. Her dad is a police officer, and several members of her family serve in the military or the police. Among her cousins are interracial couples and children.
The big issues of the year — the spread of the deadly coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests — have made for fraught and worried thinking.
“It’s a tough decision,” she said.
Trump’s most avid supporters insist not. Among the president’s base, Republican activists say support exceeds even what it was four years ago.
“We have volunteers coming out of the woodwork,” said Doris Cortese, who helps lead the local GOP in Lee County, Fla. “There’s much more enthusiasm than in 2016. Absolutely. No question.”
The Washington Post-ABC poll found that 71 percent of Trump supporters say they are “very enthusiastic,” up from 44 percent at this point in 2016 and higher than the 52 percent of Biden supporters who say the same about their candidate.
But enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into more votes. While Trump is holding the vast majority of his 2016 supporters — 92 percent, according to the Pew survey — there has been some bleeding at the margins that he can ill afford. Independents, in particular, show signs of defecting: Trump won the group by four points in 2016, exit polls show, but Biden has a 12-point advantage with them this year, The Washington Post-ABC News survey found.
Bohnert, the Arizona retiree, won’t be supporting Trump again after taking a chance on him four years ago.
The political independent originally saw Trump’s business experience as a virtue and his willingness to bust norms a possible respite from “the Clintons, the Bushes, the people who live and breathe D.C.”
She worried about his inexperience but figured there were ways to compensate.
“I thought he would surround himself with experts and learn from them and everything would be okay,” she said.
The reality has been far different. Trump’s willingness to lie, to attack opponents and to ignore facts amid a crisis, she said, have left her disenchanted. The president’s own experience after contracting a potentially fatal virus — the severity of which he has continued to play down — has especially irked her.
“I dislike him even more today than I did a week ago because of his behavior with this covid,” she said.
In addition to voters who have had a change of heart, Biden is outperforming Trump among new voters. Pew shows the Democrat with a 54-to-38 margin among those who didn’t cast a ballot in 2016.
Uglehus, a 21-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville from Cornelius, N.C., has never voted before but decided after watching the first presidential debate to register and cast a ballot for Biden. Or, as he says, “for not Trump.”
Trump’s frequent interruptions and bullying during the debate helped cement his decision, he said. So did Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy and the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group he told to “stand back and stand by.”
“That was just wild to me,” Uglehus said. “I definitely feel like people are just blindly following him. They really enjoy the hate.”