They are all nervous.
Hollie Geitner fidgets with her coffee on a brisk and foggy fall morning. Joan Smeltzer shifts in her seat, adjusting her shirt as the breeze rolls through her backyard. Julie Brady smokes one last hand-rolled cigarette, playing with the case adorned with the American flag to calm her nerves.
They are all nervous because of what they are about to discuss. They haven’t really talked about it in such a public way.
“I wasn’t ready to say to anybody, even my own husband, I’m not voting for him again. But I, I obviously am saying that now,” Geitner said.
“My husband and his whole family are Trump supporters. So, I’m kind of in the minority,” Brady said.
These women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. They are part of the 50% of white women in Pennsylvania who exit polls showed helped Trump flip the state four years ago. They also now represent the uphill battle the President faces in the battleground state this year because they are the Trump supporters the President has lost. They’re disillusioned by behavior they describe as bullying, by the lack of empathy he has shown and most especially by his failures to prepare and level with the nation about coronavirus.
“I got it wrong. And it hurts my heart. I mean, it truly hurts my heart,” said Joan Smeltzer, Brady’s sister. “I feel like I’ve been duped. I really do. I wanted to believe that he was better than he is.”
“I think I liked the idea that he was a little hardcore. He wasn’t going to put up with anybody’s nonsense. I felt like he would never let anyone walk all over us,” recalls Brady. Now four years later she describes the President in very different terms. “I think he’s a bully,” she says. “He represents everything that I don’t want my children to grow up to be.”
Smeltzer and Brady, both registered Democrats, live in Westmoreland County in the southwestern part of the state, in what is considered Trump country. They are the exact voters the President has been targeting for months now with a campaign message of “law and order.”
The voters Trump targets with tweets like “The Suburban Housewives of America…Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better.”
When asked about that message, both sisters roll their eyes.
“At the time, I laughed,” Smeltzer said. “It irritates me that he thinks that I and other people like me are stupid enough to believe that. It’s insulting.”
Regret is the word all of the Pennsylvania women we interviewed bring up when talking about their vote for Trump in 2016. And no other topic seems to confound them more uniformly than their willingness to look past Trump’s sexist and misogynistic remarks during the 2016 campaign, the allegations of sexual misconduct against him (which the President denies) and the Access Hollywood tape.
“I look at myself and I think, how could I do that?” Smeltzer asked herself.
“I feel like I did a disservice to women by voting for this guy,” Brady added.
“I literally ignored it, just like every other woman who voted for him. We ignored it. I just kept saying it’s locker room talk,” said Nin Bell, calling it an embarrassment.
Video: Former Trump voter: Not the ‘Great Again’ everyone thought it would be (CNN)
Coronavirus pandemic a breaking point
But the final breaking point for the sisters Smeltzer and Brady was the coronavirus pandemic.
“The way he handled it. That was the absolute last straw for me,” says Brady, who describes recently losing her job as an executive assistant due to the pandemic. A job she held for more than a decade. “He didn’t create the virus, but he hurt a lot of people by not doing what he should have done when he found out about it. He kind of left us all in the dark guessing what was going on. And that wasn’t fair to us.”
Unlike 2016, this November Smeltzer, Brady, and Geitner all say they are voting for Joe Biden. While conversations with Trump voters who will no longer vote for him are not necessarily predictive of how the state of Pennsylvania will vote, these conversations are illustrative of the challenges the President faces in a key battle ground. Polling from late September indicates they are part of larger trend with Biden leading by 23% among women in Pennsylvania.
The same survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News shows Trump is suffering more erosion in support than his Democratic challenger. Eight percent of voters who supported Trump four years ago now say they currently support Biden. By contrast, only 1% of voters who supported Clinton say they are switching to Trump. While 8% may seem like a small portion of the electorate, it could be significant in a state where Trump eked out a win by just 44,000 votes, less than one percentage point.
“Covid, it is top of mind for a lot of voters, men and women,” says Andrea Koplove, the director of engagement for TurnPABlue. “And then a lot of people seem to really just be focused on the discourse that’s happening in our country right now. …They’re tired of fighting and they’re tired of chaos. We hear that a lot.”
Koplove, and TurnPABlue’s executive director Jamie Perrapato, say they know this from reaching out to women statewide through the grassroots organization they founded in response to Trump’s victory in 2016. The organization recently launched a new weekly phone-banking event exclusively dedicated to women reaching out to women.
“Women voters are everything for this election. Women are going to decide this election. No doubt, one way or the other,” said Perrapato.
“A lot has changed in four years. And I’m probably a good example of someone who’s gone through a lot of change in four years,” said Geitner, a lifelong Republican, who lives in Pittsburgh. She works in communications and, along with her husband, now juggles working from home and helping two kids who are learning from home part of the week as their school is using a hybrid model.
‘I’m not OK with this’
Geitner says the single issue that drove her to vote for Trump in 2016 was the economy.
“I thought if we have a strong economy that’s good for everybody, that’s good for jobs.” She said she never recalls actually liking Trump. “He’s not that likable.”
But Geitner says she did like that he seemed authentic, “because then I know what I’m dealing with.”
Now she regrets her vote.
“I can tell you how I felt four years ago. Shame,” she said sitting on her back porch while her husband begins conference calls in their basement turned home office. “I don’t think this is the ‘Great Again’ that everyone thought it was going to be.”
Geitner says the tipping point for her was the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd.
“With the pandemic, with the social unrest, I would say the whole ceiling caved in. And that was my ‘a ha moment’ that this is not OK. I’m not OK with this,” Geitner said.
“When I read that he was begging for his mom, as a mother myself, it just brought me to my knees,” she added. “Sadly, it took his killing for things to make sense for me. I recognized my own white privilege. I recognize that — I work with and know women, Black women, who are mothers who have to have conversations with their kids that I will never have to have with my kids. And that was powerful for me. And to see what’s happened since, I feel like he’s added fuel to the flames of hatred. And that really bothers me.”
Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests that followed is also a driving force for Nin Bell. She’s a Democrat who changed parties in 2016 just to vote for Trump in the primary. Now Bell takes part in a weekly Black Lives Matter protest in her town, just outside Philadelphia. Every Saturday, she dons her “Black Lives Matter” shirt, grabs her cardboard sign reading ‘LOVE,’ and her facemask and faces off with people she used to agree with, flying ‘”F*** your feelings Trump 2020″ flags.
“I think Trump kind of thrives on that division. I see it in my own town and in surrounding towns,” Bell says. “I think he’s got a lot to do with that.”
Bell doesn’t mince words. She says she wasted her vote four years ago and said she was blinded by Trump’s celebrity.
“I loved his show the Celebrity Apprentice. Never missed it,” she says. “I had my blinders on. No one could say or do anything to change my mind. I was voting for Donald Trump. Period.”
Now, when asked what words she would use to describe Trump, she says: “I have a lot of words I probably can’t say in this interview, but he’s just a letdown.”
“I honestly thought that if elected, he would calm down, and act presidential. I really thought that was the case. But from the gate, it wasn’t. He lied about his inauguration parade and the attendance right away.”
After such an evolution from November 2016 to just before Election Day in 2020 — how do these women define their own political identities today — Republican or Democrat?
Smeltzer looks bewildered when she answers simply, “I’m lost.”
Geitner seems to agree. “That’s something I’m still working through,” she said. “At this point, I think it’s OK for me to be undecided in that aspect as long as I’m decided on where I’m going to be in this election.”