Jay Copan is careful to explain why he’s supporting a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years.
The breaking point didn’t come with President Donald Trump’s tweets or slander of a man Copan admired, John McCain. The 69-year-old retiree has long detested Trump — he considers the Republican a terrible role model for his six grandchildren — but even as recently as the spring he begrudgingly acknowledged that he was still open to backing the president, just as he did in 2016.
It was watching the “clown show” press briefings during the early days of the pandemic — and subsequent “unbelievable” response to the death of George Floyd — that convinced Copan that Trump’s presidency was unsalvageable.
“I just feel so passionately about the fact he does not deserve another four years in office,” said Copan, a registered independent who lives in suburban Raleigh. “We’ve done the four years with him, and he’s shown what he can do and what he can’t do. He just does not deserve another four years.”
Copan is now not only voting against Trump, he’s lent his voice to a group working against the president known as Republican Voters Against Trump — offering testimony that fellow former supporters of his should vote for Joe Biden now.
A lot has gone wrong for Trump this year. He’s on the defensive in key states, getting badly outspent, and was sidelined from the campaign trail for a week because of his COVID-19 illness.
But the most intractable of his problems might be people like Copan, who after supporting Trump in 2016 because they considered him the lesser of two evils are now committed to voting for Biden. They are voters who formed an essential part of Trump’s winning but narrow coalition last time around and the kind he desperately needs this year.
That shift came close to not happening. In interview after interview, a broad collection of political strategists said their own research found that many reluctant 2016 Trump voters were genuinely open to supporting him again when the year began, with many of them even likely to do so.
Their views changed for good with the dual crises that arrived in the spring that affected Trump’s political standing broadly but, according to these strategists, was particularly harmful with this small but critical group of voters who never liked him in the first place.
And perhaps surprisingly, many of them emphasize that as harmful as the pandemic and resulting economic recession was, Trump’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests — highlighted by his controversial appearance in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House to hold a photo opp with a Bible in hand — was every bit, if not more, damaging to him, especially with younger swing voters.
The chaos that once felt confined to Washington had suddenly reached these voters’ own homes, and they didn’t like how the president responded.
“They supported him in 2016 because they disliked Hillary Clinton even more, and that held them in 2017, too,” said Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist. “And in 2018 and 2019, they didn’t like what they’re seeing from the White House but the economy was still good so they stuck by him.
“And then 2020 came,” Morgan added, “and the dam broke.”
The chaos hits home
Sarah Longwell is a veteran GOP operative who runs Republican Voters Against Trump. Since 2018, she has conducted or watched dozens of focus groups with conservative-leaning swing voters who reluctantly backed the president in 2016.
Before 2020, she said the participants in her focus groups would all usually make the same distinction: Washington is tumultuous, but things were going relatively OK in their personal lives.
After the pandemic began and Trump responded to the Floyd protests, they no longer separated the two.
“Now, it was just bleak,” said Longwell, a veteran GOP operative who formed the group Republican Voters Against Trump. “Everybody would say the same thing: ‘It’s a s—show.’”
By the spring, her research and that of other operatives working against Trump began to focus specifically on understanding exactly why the pair of crises in late spring had such a significant effect on these voters — especially when most of them said they have been repeatedly disgusted by Trump for more than three years.
Their explanations always start in one place: the economy. A pandemic-induced recession that cost millions to lose their jobs simply shook them in a way that other Trump-related controversies didn’t.
“When the bottom started to fall out of the economy, suddenly the one thing that people had really hung on to, the big protector around him, started to go away,” Longwell said. “And I started to see a real shift.”
“When he pulls out of the Paris Agreement or buddies up to dictators, voters would see it and shake their heads. But it didn’t affect the kitchen-table issues,” Jackson added. “COVID is the first thing where the chickens came home to roost. And it directly affected people.”’
One Republican strategist called the economy the “glue” that held Trump’s coalition together, the one factor that allowed voters to tolerate his behavior and continue to back the GOP. For a universe of voters who aren’t inclined to support Democrats or their policy agenda, that was enough to keep them on board.
Other anti-Trump Republicans see an even broader explanation. To Shawn LeMond, the reason Copan and others like him shifted so suddenly away from the president is simple: instability.
LeMond is a former Republican state legislator in North Carolina and a Trump critic from the get-go, voting against him in 2016 with no hesitation. He said he was lonely then — his anti-Trump bumper stickers regularly brought him derision in grocery store parking lots — but has since watched many friends and colleagues come around to his way of thinking.
“It’s clear that the direction of everything is moving toward instability,” said LeMond, who lives in Greensboro, N.C. “Just over and over and over, the instability.”
Who exactly these Trump skeptics who now support Biden are from a demographic standpoint is a matter of disagreement. A totality of interviews with a dozen political data experts, voters, and elected officials described them as a hodgepodge of seniors, white working-class voters, college-educated women, and young people.
They are also overwhelmingly white. According to veteran Democratic pollster Nick Gourvetich, they make up about 5% of the total electorate.
Gourvetich, who has done thousands of interviews on coronavirus-related issues for the progressive research hub Navigator, arrived at the 5% figure by looking at the share of voters who both approve of Trump’s handling of the economy but disapprove of the way he’s handled the pandemic and protests.
Within the group, Biden leads Trump by 35 points, 60% to 25%, he said.
“Young voters tended to be troubled by his response at the protests, younger swingy voters,” Gourevitch said. “While with older voters, it was the pandemic. So it was eating out of both sides of the age gap.”
From firefighter to arsonist
Mike Madrid thought he had long since hit bedrock. The co-founder and data guru for the anti-Trump group Lincoln Project assumed that a Republican president already at historic lows among college-educated voters could not possibly drop any lower with them.
And then protests over racial justice and police brutality erupted.
“It turned out after the Floyd murder and how that was handled, we could and did drill even further with those voters,” Madrid said, who said in his data Trump dropped with them another couple of points.
The shorthand version for why Trump is losing emphasizes perceptions he bungled his response to the pandemic and the economic recession.
And although strategists readily acknowledge that those developments are an essential part of the story, they say it’s easy to miss how much damage Trump did to himself with the way he responded to the protests.
“It was interesting to me during the June, July months how even though so much of the personal pain was around COVID and the economic fallout, it was the racial stuff that had people really moving,” Longwell said.
Strategists point to two reasons his response was so politically harmful: It confirmed pre-existing fears about Trump, and unlike the pandemic, voters held him solely accountable.
One Democratic pollster, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said after Floyd’s death, they dug up old focus group readouts from the 2016. At the time, this strategist had asked participants to list their worst fear about a potential Trump presidency.
The answers were blunt.
“Over and over, when we asked people about their biggest fears of Donald Trump being president, people would routinely say, ‘I mean, there’s probably going to be race riots in the streets again,’” the pollster said.
Other strategists said that voters don’t place all the blame for the pandemic on Trump, reasoning that any president would have struggled to respond and that he wasn’t responsible for its initial spread.
But voters see Trump as entirely responsible for his divisive rhetoric about the protests. It’s the difference, strategists said, between a negligent firefighter and an outright arsonist.
Longwell, for one, began to realize just how much Trump’s response had accelerated his demise in the early summer, when she conducted a focus group with a woman who she had seen at a previous focus group in late 2019.
At the time, the voter — a Pennsylvania woman in her mid-20s — had been wary of Trump but ready to vote for him again because she disliked Democrats just as much. Several months later, the same woman described how horrified she had been by Trump’s response to Floyd’s death — and how ready she was to vote against him.
“She said she had watched Trump with the Bible do this photo opp, and she was so disgusted,” Longwell recounted. “And a bunch of people in her group were like, ‘Yes, this is how I feel.’
Longwell said in the vast majority of the focus groups she’s conducted since late spring, typically only one out of the roughly 10 gathered swing voters will declare themselves likely to vote for Trump again.
Everybody else usually says they will vote for Biden.
A missed opportunity
Despite it all, Longwell said it wasn’t hard to envision a world in which Trump was performing much better with this group of former supporters.
The president, in fact, was earning higher marks with them in the aftermath of his impeachment, a moment in winter of this year that Longwell said worried her greatly.
“Look, everybody thought he did it, and it was probably wrong. But there was such a sense of, well, I don’t know what to believe and all politicians are corrupt,” she said. “That cynicism was so deep and again, the polarization was such that they were angrier at the Democrats and media than Donald Trump what he had done.”
Even Copan said even he, in the opening month of the pandemic, was considering voting for Trump again.
“Reluctantly, If he had shown real leadership there, and really tried to deal with the issue, he might have won me back,” Copan said.
“But then,” he added, “he really sealed the deal with the George Floyd response.”