National News

They Voted for Obama, Then Went for Trump. Can Democrats Win Them Back?

Posted May 4, 2018 12:59 p.m. EDT

RITTMAN, Ohio — In the daily race that is her life, Sharla Baker does not think about politics very much.

She rises early, drives to the gas station to buy coffee, feeds her baby, dresses her two other children, ages 3 and 2, and hustles them all off to day care. By 9:30 a.m. she pulls into a hair salon 45 minutes away, where she is training to be a cosmetologist. She waxes and cuts all day long, making only the money she earns in tips, which on a recent day last month was $8.41.

But Baker does vote. She picked Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. He seemed sincere and looked like a happy family man. But most important, he was a Democrat. Her great-grandmother, who grew up poor in Pennsylvania, always said that Democrats look out for the poor people.

In 2016, though, she voted for Donald Trump. Yes, he was rich and seemed mean on his TV show, “The Apprentice.” But she liked how he talked about jobs and wages and people being left out of the economy.

Now, more than a year later, she is wavering.

“I voted for Trump because I wanted some change going on,” said Baker, 28. “But then again, maybe he’s going to do the wrong change.”

The swing of Obama voters to Trump proved a decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election. Of the more than 650 counties that chose Obama twice, about a third flipped to Trump. Many were in states critical to Trump’s win, like Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

John Sides, a political-science professor at George Washington University, has estimated that 9 percent of voters who cast ballots for Obama ended up voting for Trump. Among white voters who had never been to college, it was 22 percent.

Now, as the country lurches into another election season — this time the prize is control of Congress — a crucial question for Democrats is whether the party will be able to lure these voters back. Democrats have had some early successes. Wins in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Virginia have given Democrats hope that voters might be souring on Trump — to the point that the party might flip control of the House and possibly even the Senate. Next week’s primary races in Ohio and West Virginia, both states that went for Trump in 2016, will also serve as tests of voter enthusiasm for Democrats.

We recently asked people who cast ballots for both Obama and Trump to describe how they felt about the president and the Democratic Party ahead of the midterms. In interviews with 38 voters in 14 states across four months, a clear pattern emerged. Voters said they did not like Trump as a person and did not consider themselves die-hard supporters. Some were even embarrassed by him.

But many were basically satisfied with his policies. The tax bill was mildly positive, they said. Several had a bit of extra money in their paycheck. They liked that he was trying to address illegal immigration. Only a few regretted their vote.

Voters said they still liked Obama and that they voted for Trump because they didn’t want to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton. But they were still open to voting for Democrats — if the party could come up with the right candidates. For the most part, the midterm elections were not yet on their radars.

“Honestly, it hasn’t crossed my mind really at all,” Baker said, when asked about them.

Several voters said they chose Trump for the same reason they chose Obama: a deep craving for change and disgust with both political parties.

Charlotte Griffin, the mayor of Bear Grass, a town of about 80 people in eastern North Carolina, said her vote for Trump was more an act of desperation than a positive political choice. She had grown furious with the national political class — and what she saw as its wealth, ignorance of ordinary people’s lives and inability to get anything done. It was the first time she’d chosen a Republican in 50 years of voting. Her county, Martin County, flipped to Trump after choosing Obama twice.

“Did I really like Trump? No. I still don’t,” said Griffin in Bear Grass in January. “But at least I thought we might move. We were in a stalemate. We were at dead center zero. We were just sitting there spinning our wheels.”

At the time, Trump was defending himself after an uproar over vulgar comments he was said to have made at a closed-door immigration meeting. When asked again in April how she felt, she said Trump was still “severely testing my sensibilities.” She said she planned to vote for the same Democrat, G.K. Butterfield, who has been her congressional representative since 2004.

“It’s a variable wind situation,” she said by phone, referring to the country. “One day it seems to be going this way, and then all of a sudden it’s going the other way.”

Counties like Griffin’s that flipped from Obama to Trump have lost ground to the rest of the nation, even more so than the counties that have been solidly Republican. Forty years ago, workers in the flip counties earned 85 cents for every dollar earned by workers in the Democratic strongholds. By 2016, the ratio had fallen to 77 cents.

Baker works in Stark County, which flipped to Trump after choosing Obama twice, and she said the president was an economic disappointment.

“He’s not there for the poor and the middle class,” she said, sitting on her mother’s couch in the small town of Rittman. “I thought he would be, but he’s not.” Baker has worked many jobs since graduating from high school in 2007 — at a Bob Evans restaurant, an Aldi supermarket, a Subway sandwich shop, a packaging plant for camera memory chips, and a frame store. All paid badly. She didn’t have health care or 401(k) retirement benefits with any of them.

Baker hated making minimum wage, and how powerless it made her feel, so she enrolled in beauty school to get more control over her life.

She had hoped Trump would raise wages and force companies to give all their employees benefits. But that hasn’t happened. All she hears now is harsh talk by Republicans on TV about poor people: How people who get food stamps are lazy. How they should be given boxes of food instead of money.

Baker knows there is another election this year, but like most people interviewed for this article, she said she had not looked up the candidates yet. She was not sure if she would vote.

Many people interviewed went out of their way to say they did not consider themselves Trump supporters.

Donna Burgraff, a registered independent in Chillicothe, in southern Ohio, said she finds Trump boorish. She said that he judges women on their looks and seems to thrive on embarrassing people, behavior that Burgraff, an associate professor of education at Ohio University, disapproves of.

Burgraff did not like how Trump kept falsely asserting that Obama was not born in the United States.

“How could that have been anything but racism?” she said.

Still, on Election Day 2016, Burgraff voted for Trump, if reluctantly. She believed he was the better choice. And looking back she does not regret it. The tax bill has given her an extra $400 a month in her paycheck.

“I pulled the lever for Trump, and I’m not sorry I did,” she said over lunch in Chillicothe in March. She said she planned to vote this fall for her Republican congressman, Brad Wenstrup.

But others regretted voting for Trump and are less certain how they will vote this fall.

Brad Zeigler, 68, a retired police chief in Warren County, Illinois, said he has not liked anything Trump has done.

“I thought maybe he’ll listen to his advisers and they’ll contain him,” said Zeigler, who, like his county, voted for Obama twice before choosing Trump. “But that hasn’t happened.” He said he is furious at himself for having voted for Trump and is open to voting for Democrats this fall, even though the party no longer really speaks to him.

“I’m concerned about our environment,” he said. “I’m concerned about people’s rights. I sound like a far-left person and I’m not!”

Instead, Zeigler said he feels politically homeless.

“The Republicans are about money and big business and the Democrats have lost their way. They are not taking care of that core group they know is out there.”