Steadfast For Trump
Suburban Women Voters in 2020
by Kailey Wasserman
College-educated, suburban women living in battleground states and counties say the President’s policies are more important than his moral character.
One day last summer, among the worshippers who trickled out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral onto the Fifth Avenue sidewalk below the church’s towering neo-Gothic spires was Vanessa Simon. She had just accepted a job as senior human resources manager at the new Rockefeller Center location of FAO Schwarz. Simon took a dozen steps south and walked one block west to see how construction was progressing for the grand opening of the legendary toy store scheduled for just before Black Friday. On her short walk back towards Fifth Avenue, a dark blue awning emblazoned with a white crest at 3 West 51st Street caught her attention.
Simon had stumbled on the Women’s National Republican Club, the country’s oldest national gathering place for Republican women and a buoy of conservatism in New York City’s liberal blue sea. The location of the neo-Georgian building is where Andrew Carnegie’s palatial residence once stood. Its grandeur intimidated Simon at first, but not for long. As a 32-year-old black conservative from Suffolk County, Long Island, with two university degrees, she soon found among its members a congenial group of like-minded people. The “triangular effect” of the club’s location between office and church was another serendipitous plus for Simon. On top of that is the club’s proximity—a mere five minutes on foot—to Trump Tower, the 2020 headquarters of the eponymous candidate she again will strongly support for re-election as president of the United States.
With the next election cycle already gathering momentum, Simon finds herself part of a sought-after demographic of American voters who maintain significant electoral power: College-educated women living in states or counties that Trump flipped from Democrat to Republican in the 2016 presidential election. She is one of dozens of Republican women interviewed across three states who voted for Trump in 2016 and remain steadfast in their support, citing as their top reasons a strong military, a thriving, business-friendly economy, and the stringent, merit-based immigration system he touts. The interviews give a compelling if unscientific indication of how and why President Trump has met these women’s expectations in all three arenas and those of other educated women who express similar views.
They identify as feminists who are rooted in conservatism but maintain that their gender does not influence their vote. They welcome equality but reject pussy hats; they believe in the core mission of #MeToo but are skeptical of its excesses and of the feminist movement as a whole. And they agree that Trump’s policies outweigh their distaste for his coarseness and character flaws. There is little the president could say or do that would deter them from supporting him in 2020.
Nearly two dozen members of this demographic offered their opinions either in on-the-record interviews or informal, not-to-be-attributed conversations. They live in the quiet suburbs of Manhattan, the sun-soaked neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Florida, or the sprawling country club towns outside of Columbus, Ohio. Their biographical profiles vary: single, married, kids, no kids, inaugural ball goers in their state’s capital or die-hard fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yet they have more in common with each other than with the prevailing image of a Trump supporter as a white, uneducated, working class man living in the rural Midwest. Their stories help explain why if the election were held today, they wouldn’t hesitate to vote for Trump and help propel their candidate to what they hope will be another four years in office.
Simon beamed as she pinned the club’s laminated name tag for new members onto the lapel of her robin’s egg blue blazer. She circulated the Republican lub’s fourth floor lounge, where members and guests gathered for its October 2018 meeting. She had waited all summer for the club’s membership board to accept her application, and was thrilled to meet the other members and learn about the club’s history and upcoming monthly events. There were some 40 people in attendance, mostly women over the age of 60 with a sprinkling of men who can join as club associates, although without voting privileges. There were a handful of 20s-and-s30-somethings, too. They socialized in the dimly lit lounge, chatting in small groups over glasses of red and white wine poured by a server in a black vest and bowtie. The warm air swelled with stale hairspray and Chanel perfume. Guests settled into the room’s plush maroon and champagne couches trimmed in subtle paisley or its regal Georgian loveseats. They nibbled on cubes of cheddar cheese and Keebler Club crackers on paper cocktail plates. The occasional crumb dropped onto the worn red carpet as thick drawn curtains masqued the room in seclusion. The mansion, designed by architect Frederic Rhinelander King, a descendent of Peter Stuyvesant, stills exudes a Gilded Age opulence that feels far removed from the midtown skyscrapers at its doorstep. Henrietta Wells Livermore, the noted suffrage movement activist, founded the club in the final decade of the 70-year campaign for the vote. It originally was housed in a loft until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace Coolidge, opened its new headquarters on East 37th Street. A decade later, in 1934, the club relocated to the 51st Street location. Since then, the mansion has been a haven for Republican women to organize networking luncheons, facilitate political education, and host speakers from right-wing pundit Ann Coulter to former special counsel Judge Kenneth W. Starr.
On a Monday in October, Simon and others shared anecdotes about living like “closeted Republicans,” their voices “muted” in their day-to-day lives. Simon and a prospective club member, a recent Yale graduate from Virginia who works for the e-commerce site, Jet.com, both commented on how afraid they are to share their political views at work when their more liberal peers are in earshot. The prospective member recalled taking a selfie with Fox News host Tucker Carlson when she bumped into him on her lunch break, but she hid her excitement when she returned to the office.
Instead, they whisper in low tones to their few known conservative coworkers and text their friends when they want to make a political point or discuss a current event. That October night, only weeks before the midterm elections, on everyone’s mind was whether President Trump would secure funding for the border wall he pledged to build along the US-Mexico border.
In 2016, the voting preferences of women varied widely across subcategories of race, education, geography, class and age. For example, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton won women overall, but President Trump narrowly won white women. Fully 45 % of white women with at least four-year college degrees cast their ballots in his favor, according to CNN’s Exit Polls. This was a notable outcome, given that his opponent was the first woman presidential candidate from a major party and the marring of his own campaign with allegations of sexual misconduct and his extramarital affairs. And while non-white voters in nearly all categories heavily favored Clinton, Trump won suburban voters by a tight margin of five points. Two years later, in the November 2018 midterm congressional elections, the suburbs became political battlegrounds with educated women one of the key voting blocs to watch. Nationally, all women and all suburban voters were evenly split between Republican and Democratic candidates at 49% each. But the results gave Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2009. White, college-educated women were much of the reason. They turned out in large numbers and favored Democratic House candidates over Republicans by a wide 20-point margin, the Pew Research Center reported.
Yet, a more granular approach to the data tells a different story, particularly in the states where the midterm races were tightest. For example, in Delaware County, Ohio’s most educated county, the percentage of votes that went to the Republican candidates for senate and governor was about equal to the 54% of votes that Trump won in his first bid for the presidency. The same pattern emerged in the election results for St. Johns County, Florida — 65% went for Senator Rick Scott and 64% for Governor Ron DeSantis against Trump’s 65%. It’s fair to deduce that educated women in the country’s most politically significant suburban counties didn’t budge in 2018. And, if the president’s 90% approval rating among Republican women in March 2019 is any indication, that pattern may well hold in 2020.
Simon knows that her demographic cohort in particular is a rarity. Exit polls in 2016 showed a decisive 92% of black women with a college degree voted for Clinton compared to Trump’s meager 6%. Being a part of that 6% comes with its own unique challenges, Simon said. She feels the judgment of the larger black community, with some among the most liberal calling her and other black conservatives “traitors.” Part of the Women’s Republican Club’s allure is the freedom it affords her to avoid ridicule, even if the cohort is overwhelmingly white. Besides, as she’s matured, Simon has become increasingly comfortable with her “unicorn” status. “Growing up in Islip, it prepared me for being the one of few,” she said in a later phone conversation. “But it has never made me forget who I am and at the end of the day me still being a woman of color.”
Simon has not moved into the city. She commutes to work every day from West Babylon, just a short drive from Islip, where her mother still lives. Islip, one of 10 towns in Long Island’s Suffolk County, is richer, whiter and with a higher percentage of college-educated residents than the average American suburb. In 2000, Suffolk gave Al Gore an 11-point victory over George W. Bush and in both 2008 and 2012, county voters supported Barack Obama. Then in 2016, the county swung hard to the right. More than a third of its residents have at least a bachelor’s degree and it’s median household income is just under $100,000, making it statistically similar to neighboring Nassau County, where Trump lost by 6 points—the same margin by which he won Suffolk. Last May, Politico Magazine reported that the area’s booming immigrant population helps explain why Trump carried 51% of the county’s vote in 2016.
Simon agreed. “Having immigrants and migrant workers literally on corners in certain towns in large groups looking for work every morning, I think that obviously plays in people’s minds as they’re driving to work,” she said. In the weeks and months leading up to the 2016 election, the effects of both the immigrant influx and an intensifying opioid crisis were strong concerns among her family, neighbors, and friends. Desire for real change she said, was palpable. “I think when President Trump came around it definitely piqued an interest and people were just curious of where he could take us. A lot of the topics he had covered did hit home in Suffolk County.”
“But this is America, land of the free. Not the land of freeloaders.”
Between 2000 and 2010, Suffolk County’s Hispanic and Latinx population grew by nearly 65%, from less than 11% of the total population of 1,419,369 in 2000 to 16.5% of 1,493,350 a decade later. In other terms, 96,828 persons of Hispanic or Latinx origin moved into Suffolk during that 10-year time frame — nearly 10,000 persons a year. Updated census estimates from July 2017 said the Hispanic and Latinx population increased again to 291,779, or 19.5% of the total. But of that number, an estimated 51,000 are undocumented and ineligible to vote, Politico Magazine reported. Suffolk is also home to the pristine vacation estates of the villages of the “East End,” from Quogue and Westhampton through Southampton and East Hampton to Montauk. There, the influx of Hispanic and Latinx immigrants helped feed a local economy driven by home-building, landscaping, and agriculture. But it has also brought a minority of criminal gangs, including a growing presence of MS-13, and a revival of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“I mean, you’re talking to someone whose parents are immigrants,” Simon said of her Haitian heritage. This was over a burger at the Tri-Tip Grill in 30 Rock’s concourse a week after the Nov. 6 midterms. The FAO Schwarz grand opening was three days away. “But this is America, land of the free. Not the land of freeloaders,” she said. “There has to be a way to make sure people coming over here are actually doing something to contribute.”
Long before she could vote, Simon knew she would register as a Republican. She was raised with a Catholic upbringing in a conservative household that primed her fiscal, social and political worldview. She is wary of overspending on government aid programs, wants lower taxes and looks to religion for many of her core values. Her parents were high school sweethearts who immigrated from Haiti in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, having Simon shortly after settling in Fort Lauderdale and before relocating to New York. Her parents have since split up and after her grandfather died a few years ago, Simon’s father moved back to Haiti to run the family businesses of grocery stores and gas stations. Simon graduated from a private, coed Roman Catholic high school in Huntington and the State University of New York College at Geneseo with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government. She did her master’s degree in human resources management and personnel administration at State University of New York at Stony Brook, also in Suffolk County.
With an already crowded 2020 field of Democrats that includes a record-number of women and minority candidates running for president, Simon remains confident in Trump’s leadership and thinks he will, and should, win a second term. The longest government shutdown in US history did not change her view, nor did Trump’s failure to secure the $5.7 billion he demanded to build a wall across the US-Mexico border. It was January, and Simon had just returned from a vacation in the Dominican Republic after the store’s grueling holiday season.
Simon cares far more about reforming the country’s immigration system than the push for a physical barrier. Most Americans seemed to agree with her; Trump’s approval ratings across three major national polls dropped during the shutdown. But not wanting to appear as if he was reneging on his central campaign promise, the President declared a national emergency in February in a failed maneuver to secure the funds. “The wall piece, I think, it’s just bravado at this point,” Simon said. “He wants to check it off his list because he promised a wall.”
Simon thinks adding “a touch of humanity to our country” is a key part of putting America first and said the president should do his part by toning down his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Yet at the same time, she finds it infuriating when Trump’s critics blame him for inciting hatred and empowering white nationalists. She thought back to her elementary and high school days, when she was one of “maybe three” students of color in her grade. Classmates distinguished her from another girl with the same name by calling her “Black Vanessa.” Once at at a friend’s house in high school, the parents called their pet chocolate lab the n*word and laughed as if she, too, would find it funny. “The hate never went anywhere.” she said. It took years for her to fully realize that these behaviors were not okay. Nor are the experiences that haven’t stopped. “I can’t go to Tiffany’s without being followed by the security guard still,” Simon raised her voice into the phone. “Do I think President Trump is helping? I think yes, he’s doing what needed to be done: bring it to the surface.”
Unifying the country, she thinks, is less important than Americans gaining a better understanding of each other and the nation’s problems. She thinks Trump’s “politically incorrect” style helps to keep conversations about race and identity at the forefront. “I know that he lacks a little refinement, isn’t as polished as some would like our president to be,” Simon said. “However, if you kind of sift through all that, there is substance at the base of it.”
No candidate in 2016 thrilled Simon before Trump became the nominee. All she knew was that she was desperate for change and wanted a Republican in the White House after eight years of Oba—and there was not a chance she would vote for Hillary Clinton, who Simon said always gives off the sense that “you don’t know what you’re getting,” a “sense of mystery.” With Trump on the other hand, she said, “you know what you get.“ She also liked that Trump was a businessman, not a career politician. She acknowledge how “brazen he is at times and vocal,” and that his stance on the #MeToo movement disappointed her, as did his response to allegations of his own sexual misconduct. She does not think he took them as seriously as he should have. She called his response to the infamous Access Hollywood tape “very matter of fact and thrown to the side.” Even though presidents are not elected to be moral leaders, Simon said, they should still be beacons—her word choice—of good character for the country.
Her views reflected those of many of the other college-educated, suburban women interviewed across the country, especially in their expression of distrust in traditional politicians and why Trump’s no-frills, “drain the swamp” approach remains appealing enough for them to continue to favor him over another Clinton-esque establishment figure.
Drive south out of New York for about 950 miles on I-95 to the northern Florida city of Jacksonville. It was the day after Christmas and Dottie Cernik was shopping at St. Johns Town Center, one of the seemingly hundreds of sprawling strip malls that dominate the Jacksonville area’s sun-soaked landscape. This one was especially nice—palm trees lined the sidewalks outside of a Tesla dealership and families strolled between upscale stores in 70 degree weather. It took Cernik 15 minutes to drive to the mall from her house on the intercoastal waterway by Jacksonville Beach. A 74-year-old resident of Duval County, she lives in one of the suburban beachside communities along the Atlantic coast that is about 25 minutes east of downtown Jacksonville. She studied English at Bucknell University and led a mostly successful career in local Maryland politics before retiring south to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren.
Cernik carried a Nordstrom shopping bag and a children’s book called “I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!” The author, Whitney Darrow Jr., wrote the book in 1970, the same year that one of Cernik’s daughters was born. Cernik flipped through the pages and explained how she likes to show it to the six children and 10 grandchildren she shares with her husband, Jack, to remind them that they can do whatever they want, unrestricted by antiquated gender norms. Boys are doctors, it said on the left side of the page with Girls are nurses shown on the right. Boys are policemen, Girls are meter maids. Boys eat; girls cook. She kept turning the pages until she stopped on one that read, Boys are President, Girls are First Ladies. “Well, that one is crazy,” she said. “Conservative women would like to see a woman president, but we want to vote for a woman as president who shares our values.” She closed the book and said that no one told her or her friends who to vote for in 2016. They evaluated each candidate’s policies and came to independent decisions which led them to Donald Trump. “Even though my first choice probably wouldn’t have been the president,” Cernik said, “I support him because he is our president.”
Thousands of retirees like Cernik migrate to the Jacksonville area each year for the warm weather, sweet tax breaks and cheap real estate, at least relative to the national average. Census data reports that Jacksonville is the state’s most populous and fastest growing city, yet is far closer to Georgia and the Republican red deep south than it is to bustling Miami and southern Florida’s pockets of liberal blue. Jacksonville occupies nearly all of Duval County and houses three major naval installations: an air station, submarine base and seaport. A number of other facilities and bases help make Jacksonville home to the third largest military presence in the country.
In recent years, Jacksonville has also become known for its uncertain politics. Florida’s midterm races were some of the nation’s most high-profile of 2018, starting with the gubernatorial race between progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum and Trumpian Republican Ron DeSantis. Democrats ended up winning Duval in 2018, two years after Trump won the county and flipped the state of Florida in his favor. The local papers attributed the shift in Jacksonville, and Duval as a whole, to a dramatic midterm turnout among Democratic voters, which is seen in the turnout analysis data provided by Mike Hogan, Duval County’s Supervisor of Elections. What the precinct data also demonstrates is that Jacksonville’s urban area may be solid blue but the surrounding suburbs are still Trump country. These red areas include Duval’s own beachside communities, where Cernik lives, and the neighboring towns of St. Johns County. All have remained Trump-strongholds with the help of college-educated women like Cernik. They represent about 40% of that non-urban female population over the age of 25 and form a sought-after cohort in a state that Trump flipped from blue to red in 2016.
“I truly believe that he feels a strong sense of patriotism and love for our country. I just think that he has a personality that’s abrasive and can be really nasty.”
Florida’s status as a swing state means its voters wield critical electoral power. No US president has won the general election without also winning Florida since 1964. Some of the country’s most contentious races are held here each election season whether it’s for governor, senate or president. In 2000, Florida notoriously sent President George W. Bush to the White House after an extensive statewide recount resulted in Bush beating Al Gore by only a couple hundred votes. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama narrowly won Florida but lost Duval County. Then in 2016, Donald Trump squeezed out a state victory by a margin of 1.2%. Duval’s county election results were just as tight. Trump won with fewer than six thousand more votes than Clinton, or a squeaky margin of 1.4%. These trends solidify Jacksonville’s place as a 2020 battleground to watch.
“I was looking for somebody who would be strong on defense and security and I felt that Trump would,” Cernik said in one of the mall’s coffee shops the day after Christmas. For her, the country’s safety and economy are today’s most important issues, just as they were in the last presidential election cycle. Clinton didn’t have “any basis” in economics and her response to and involvement with the Benghazi attacks helped sway Cernik towards Trump, even though she did not vote for him in the 2016 Republican primary. “I truly believe that he feels a strong sense of patriotism and love for our country. I just think that he has a personality that’s abrasive and can be really nasty,” she said. And yet, “if the vote was today I still would vote for Trump.” She has since made peace with the President’s flaws and is curious to see what he could accomplish with a second term. As is true for Simon, nearly 1,000 miles away and 42 years apart in age, policy remains more important than how the president speaks and acts. “I really was more concerned with somebody who was really not a politician. I think that was the main thing,” Cernik said. “Let’s get somebody different in there, let’s see if we can change the way the country’s going.”
The differences between Simon and Cernick don’t stop at age and geography. Unlike Simon, Cernick is white, married, retired and a mother and grandmother who comes from a generation of women who had to fight to have their own bank accounts. Her father was a Marine, and from 1974 through 1997, Cernik worked in Maryland politics. Beyond serving on various boards and commissions, Cernik ran a handful of campaigns for local elections. Two of those campaigns were for democratic candidates; and despite her Republican affiliation, Cernik was proud to help a democratic woman beat a republican man. In Hartford County, Maryland, she chaired the Women’s Republican Club for four years and helped establish one of the first resource centers for women who, after experiencing spousal abuse and domestic violence, needed help transitioning into a life of independence. She currently chairs the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), an organization that helps young conservative women connect with each other on college campuses and engage in political discussion. One of her granddaughters, Katie Leeper, is involved with NeW at Virginia Tech and wrote a blog post for the organization’s site praising her grandmother as her conservative role model. In 2000, Cernik divorced her first husband after he allegedly sabotaged her second failed bid for state legislature. In need of a change, she left Maryland behind for Jacksonville, where she met Jack. Today, Cernik sometimes writes guest columns for her local paper, The Florida Times-Union, under headlines such as two from last year: “Here’s What Feminism Means to a Local Women” and “Here’s Why Women Proudly voted for Trump.”
Cernik said she “really did feel like a feminist” when she was working in local politics from the late 1970s through the ‘90s, but she no longer identifies with the the movement’s more progressive side. She entered adulthood at a time when women were told that they could “have it all,” so Dottie did have it all—she juggled a career, housework and motherhood. Now she looks back and wishes she could’ve done less, like staying home with her kids more often when they were young, without feeling judged by the women “doing it all” around her. In the ‘70s, Dottie kept a journal to document her thoughts and feelings while watching women enter the workforce and hold positions of power at a scale that the country had never seen before. It was an exciting time. She finds today’s women’s movement confusing; unrecognizable. “These women that came out in that march don’t represent what we conservative women want women to be,” she said of the massive January 2017 women’s protest march in Washington, DC, the day after the Trump inauguration. “Wearing something that they call pussy hats, I mean, excuse me—I don’t even know what word to use,” she said. “I was appalled. I was appalled at the language, I was appalled at their manners, the screaming, it just didn’t make sense to me.”
Back in 1986, as the Small Business Chair for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Cernik met then Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, at a DC event for the first time. During a visit to the White House four years later, Cernik met Mrs. Bush again; a recollection that still makes her face glow with undiminished admiration for the then First Lady’s bearing and fierce ability to defend her family, especially against verbal attacks hurled by Trump on the 2016 campaign trail. Cernik said she also respects current First Lady Melania Trump, but pointed out how “she doesn’t come across as warm and fuzzy” and can’t seem to “handle the criticism the way that some of other wives would handle it.”
Cernik is happy with the number and quality of the women Trump has appointed to his cabinet and with two of his most visible spokespeople, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway. Cernik doesn’t think he needs to add more women to maintain a balance given the resignations of Nikki Haley, the popular US Ambassador to the UN, White House Aide Omarosa Manigault, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. She likes his staff choices overall. She expressed discomfort, however, with the cabinet’s high rate of turnover.
One West Wing mainstay that Cernick wishes had more power is Ivanka Trump, the President’s eldest daughter. Her formal White House title is adviser to the President with a focus on empowering women and their families through diversified education and employment opportunities. Cernik, like many traditional Republicans, holds tightly to family values and sees nothing wrong with the President running the White House much like he ran his business—with his family members in influential positions, including son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “I thought his daughter would have more of an influence on him as far as his behavior than she apparently does,” Cernik said. “That’s what I was hoping for.” She thinks Ivanka could play a bigger role in reining in some of Trump’s reckless Twitter habits. “I wish somebody would take away his phone,” Cernik laughed, “and only give it to him when he really wanted to make a phone call.”
For Republicans like Cernick, the dissonance between long-standing Republican family values and this twice-divorced president with the playboy past does pose some challenges. Asked how she reconciles that tension, she paused and stumbled over her words for a moment before finding the right ones. “I would like to see behavior in a president or a congress person or anyone—a governor, anyone—to show respect for their family and their wives. Or spouses. ‘Cause it could be a woman,” she said. “He should be above that. But what somebody has done in the past, is the past. And I have to say that as a divorced person myself.”
Cernik justified Trump’s shortcomings by pointing out other examples of dubious behavior in government, like Congress using a 1995 accountability law to open a “slush fund” to pay off workplace settlements, including the cover-up of accusations of sexual harassment. Cernik complained, too, about the way Hillary Clinton “handled herself” as secretary of state. Cernik prefers Trump’s rashness and brashness to Clinton’s elitism, but was not blind to the double standard her answers seemed to suggest. “I don’t think a woman with the demeanor that he has could get elected because they would be looked at differently,” she said, tripping over her words again and laughing for a moment before she went on. “I think any woman candidate for any office has to be very assertive, very sure of herself, very knowledgeable about the facts, so that she can confront any allegations or any issues that her opponent is throwing out with clarity and with her own grasp with what to say.” But shouldn’t a man as candidate have to do the same? “They should. They should,” Dottie laughed softly and took a sip of her coffee. “But they seem to be able to get away with more.”
In 2020, Democrat or Republican challenger, a candidate would have to be amazing for any of the women interviewed even to consider leaving the Trump camp. None evinced interest in anyone mounting a primary challenge to the president, but they didn’t dismiss the idea altogether. Cernik, for instance, said she would rather see more compromise and less internecine conflict within the Republican Party. Jeb Bush and John Kasich, two establishment GOP leaders who both lost against Trump in the 2016 primaries, should have gotten over the “terrible names” the President called them and worked with the administration, she said. It was disappointing that they chose instead to become two of the party’s first and most vocal Trump critics.
Like nearly all of the women interviewed, Cernik said she doesn’t vote based solely on party allegiance. Her ballots aren’t always straight Republican, particularly in local elections, and supporting a moderate Democrat is not out of the question for her, she said. “But not open—I could never vote for Gillum because of Socialist — he has a Socialist agenda,” Cernik added, adopting the anti-socialist rhetoric that President Trump and the GOP has been using to criticize Democrats in preparation for the 2020 election cycle. Unabashed progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two New England senators running for president, aren’t moderate enough to win Cernik’s vote, she said, and neither is any other Democrat she’s seen so far. But then Cernik’s eyes widened when former Vice President Joe Biden’s name came up. “He’s a good guy! I’m not sure he’d make a great president, but he’s a really good guy,” she said, nodding her head. When Cernik was in Maryland, she recalled hearing about the former Delaware senator who would take the train home from DC everyday to be with his kids after his wife and infant daughter died in a car accident. “I really admired that about him,” she said. “That was a real commitment. Family values, that’s important.”
Fragmentation is the GOP’s biggest problem today, Cernik said, shortly before she left the busy cafe to make some gift exchanges next door at Nordstrom. She had just returned from a Christmas trip to Miami where she and her husband cheered on Jacksonville from the stands of the Jaguars v. Dolphins football game. Cernik said she has always discussed politics with her children and grandchildren and used to watch her conservative son and her ex-husband’s “very liberal” daughter have mini policy debates over dinner. She encouraged them to stand up for their beliefs no matter what they were by knowing and using the facts to back up their assertions. “Vote with your brain and your heart,” she has always taught them, “but your brain first.”
Following the Atlantic coastline south past Jacksonville Beach leads into St. Johns County, a district that shares its northern border with Duval County. Its land mass isn’t much smaller but its population is less than a third the size of Duval’s. St. Johns is a commutable distance from downtown Jacksonville and home to a much higher percentage of richer, white college-educated voters than those in Duval. In 2016, Trump earned more than twice as many votes as Clinton in St. Johns County. Republican congressional candidates repeated that pattern in the 2018 midterms, making St. Johns solid Trump territory and moral reliable turf than Duval.
Jennifer Nealis is 38, a lifelong Republican and resident of Jacksonville area for the past 22 years with a soft drawl that announces her southern roots. She grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, not far from the. She said she’s worried that a big Democratic turnout and what she sees as the local GOP’s lack of enthusiasm for Trump could hurt the President’s re-election efforts in Florida next year. “Not everybody here likes Trump,” Nealis said, lowering her voice to a whisper inside a Panera Bread cafe in St. Johns Town Center, the same upscale outdoor shopping mall with the Nordstrom store. Like Cernik, Nealis finds division within the Republican party disappointing and harmful to the country. “I know that the Republicans in Duval County, there was actually kind of a falling out when he became the nominee,” she whispered, glancing at the tables of people around her as she recalled the mood in northern Florida during the run up to 2016.
Nealis has called Florida home since she was 16. Her father worked for the military as a programmer and moved the family further south when he was transferred to one of Jacksonville’s naval bases. She now works as an administrative executive for a real estate company in downtown Jacksonville and holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business administration from the University of North Florida. Nealis said she comes from an entirely Republican family and has a strong belief in the conservative, Christian values she learned as a child. She considered a career in politics and dreamt of moving to DC, a city Nelis loves to visit. But she thought her resume lacked enough relevant experience to land a job in the nation’s capital, so Nealis said she got involved with local politics first by joining the Jacksonville Young Republicans Club in 2013. She met her future husband James, a Jacksonville lawyer, at the club’s first board meeting in her new position as finance director. They married two years later.
Of Trump, she said, “I actually initially wasn’t really a fan. I just thought it was comical. He would say things and I would just just kind of laugh and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, what in the world?’”
But when he did become the nominee, Nealis started to take him more seriously. Nealis said she started “really listening to what he was saying” during his rowdy campaign rallies and fiery debates. That’s when she realized that she agreed with most of his policies. She wants him to build the wall. She likes that he stands up for Christians, and she’s happy that his tax reform bill supports small business.
Neither Nealis nor her husband voted for Trump in the primaries but they grew to like him more and more in the lead up to the election through today. Nealis said she had a difficult time understanding why some lifelong Republicans from her area couldn’t do the same and support the president. “I’m sure you remember the Never Trump Movement. It wasn’t just Democrats, it was a lot of Republicans,” she said, speaking in that low tone to avoid being overheard. “It’s like, what? What’s wrong with you?” She furrowed her eyebrows. “If you’re not supporting him, you’re gonna support the Democratic candidate,” she said. “So it’s very divisive.”
“It’s like ugh,” Nealis said, showing her disgust. “But again I’m voting for the person whose policies align with mine, you know?”
Nealis said she“felt that there wasn’t a lot of support for him [as] in past presidential elections where people would all get together and really campaign. There wasn’t really a huge presence of that,” so she and her husband tried to pick up the slack by waving their own Trump signs for passing cars before the election.
Nealis said she’s always had an interest in politics but Obama’s presidency became a flashpoint for her. “He just seemed to go on this apology tour for America, going to other countries and not speaking very highly of us, just kind of things that didn’t seem very American to me as a President,” she said. By the end of Obama’s second term, Nealis said she was looking for a candidate who would take a strong position on defense. Feeling safe and secure on domestic soil is a top priority for her, and so far, Trump has delivered. Since taking office, President Trump has increased military funding by $133 billion. He’s also allied himself with the National Rifle Association, touting the rights of gun owners and promising to protect Second Amendment rights. This is huge for Nealis who views her right to carry as crucial to her sense of safety. “My ultimate fear is to not be able to carry at all,” she said.
Over time, Nealis said she has seen the Republican party move farther away from its conservative roots and take more centrist approaches to issues like abortion and gay marriage. She would love to see the party reverse course and align itself even closer with her core beliefs, many of which she finds in the Bible. To appease voters like Nealis, one action Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate have taken is making conservative judicial nominations and appointments a top priority. By the spring of 2019, the Senate had approved 100 of Trump’s judicial nominees to posts throughout the federal court system, forming a lasting judicial legacy that leans to the right.
One confirmation in particular was of special importance to Nealis: US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the former DC Circuit Court of Appeals judge whom Trump tapped last July to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy. The 53-year-old Kavanaugh appeared to be a shoo in with a flawless resume and a right-leaning judicial track record. Then, in a September 2018 Washington Post article, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school. What transpired in the weeks that followed was a hard-to-watch frenzied morass of politics and media. The hours-long hearing on Sept. 27, 2018, less than two months before the midterms, streamed across all major news networks, providing an eerie echo of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings. The Kavanaugh conflict was deeply polarizing and energized voters on both sides of the debate.
“As far as the Brett Kavanaugh, I felt like that was a witch hunt and it made me very angry. It just made me angry,” Nealis said. She called Dr. Ford an “extreme liberal” and questioned the purity of her motives and the veracity of her claims. She wondered why Dr. Ford had not come forward sooner and questioned whether there was Democrat involvement in her decision to speak up. “And if they had gotten away with it,” Nealis said, “it just would’ve been really bad for everyone’s morale—conservative’s, Republican’s morale, you know?”
Reflecting on the #MeToo Movement as a whole, Nealis said she thinks some women have lied about their claims of sexual assault and harassment, often at the hands of their men bosses. Maybe not all of them, she said, but some. Both Nealis and Cernik shared the view that many Hollywood stars at the center of #MeToo “went through with it and now they’re billionaires. And so to talk about it now, you let it happen to [advance] your career,” Nealis said in a frustrated tone. She thinks it’s unfair to men that women, like Dr. Ford, “have the power to 30 years later say something that may or may not be true and like ruin somebody’s life over it.” In Nealis’s case, her attitude about #MeToo dovetails with her broader perspective on feminism. She said she definitely does not identify as a feminist in today’s terms, but is all for gender equality, especially in the workplace. “I think a lot of today’s feminists, not all, have victimized themselves,” she said. “I feel like a lot of women don’t respect men and that’s why they’re feminists, you know? They kind of have a beef with men.”
When she heard the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of 2005, not made public until the Washington Post broke the story on Oct. 8, 2016, Nealis said she cringed and felt disappointed. “It’s like ugh,” Nealis said, showing her disgust. “But again I’m voting for the person whose policies align with mine, you know?”
Nealis is more skeptical of other critical stories launched against Trump, such as the investigation into his charity organization for malpractice that led to its dissolution. She said it’s getting harder to discern the truth amid intense media polarization. The amount of hatred non-Trump supporters project towards the president is shocking to Nealis. The divisiveness has been so toxic, she said, that she’s cut down significantly on the amount of time she spends on Facebook and reading the news, which she typically gets from Fox TV. She would like to see less bias, more honesty from both the left and the right. In her opinion, biased media coverage has created a false caricature of the President and his supporters that causes others to “hate” them without reason. “Just portraying a certain type, a certain negative stereotype [of] Trump supporter – it’s just not fair ‘cause it’s not true,” she said. “I think they know full well there are people who are not country bumpkins who vote for him.”
Like Cernik and Simon, Nealis said Trump’s non-political background and say-it-how-it-is approach drew her in. “I really detest political correctness,” Nealis said, explaining how she found Trump’s style refreshing and easier to believe in. Now that he’s in the Oval Office, though, she says the President should demonstrate more self control, refrain from engaging in name-calling and petty Twitter fights, and work to get the right person into cabinet and administration positions the first time. Of the many resignations, she said, “I don’t think it’s a positive, I don’t think it looks good, I don’t think any company that has high turnover is looked upon as a good thing and then you can’t build if you continue getting new people.”
She also said she warmed to Trump faster than her husband did. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a little less politically correct than he is,” Nealis laughed, admitting that maybe her husband is “just a nicer person” than she is. Both, she said, will almost definitely vote for him again in 2020.
Florida isn’t the only bellwether state for 2020. Ohio is another battleground that has historically voted for the winning Presidential candidate in general elections. What makes it even more significant next year is that no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Trump flipped the Buckeye State from Democrat to Republican in 2016 after Ohioans voted for Obama twice. They voted for Bush twice before that. In Ohio, Trump won by more than 450,000 votes. White voters across the state—male, female, college-educated, uneducated, rural and suburban—gave Trump a comfortable 8-point margin in the state in 2016 with a sizeable boost from white, college-educated women. Exit polls show they comprised a fifth of the state’s 2016 voters; 56% of them went for Trump compared to 39% for Clinton. One of Trump’s Ohio supporters was 38-year-old Sara Marie Brenner, a lifelong Ohioan and PhD candidate with two university degrees. “We wanted the policies,” Brenner said. “We knew we weren’t getting a prince charming.”
After eight years of Obama, Brenner said one of her main reasons for supporting Trump was the frustration she felt over healthcare and the economy. None of the moderates in contention—Brenner called them the “squish candidates”—held any appeal for her, including her state’s own former Republican governor, John Kasich. “But that’s not to say still that the way that he presents himself doesn’t make us cringe,” she said. “I mean, every once in awhile it does. But you kind of look past all that because you know what the policies need to be.” Brenner added that as a woman, she thinks her gender makes her more sensitive to how issues are presented and how candidates frame their positions. “But like with Trump, it didn’t matter to me,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t really take a whole lot of, I guess, ‘feminism’ into account.”
It was lunchtime. Brenner had blocked out an hour and reserved a conference room in her office building in Worthington, a town in Delaware County, where she works as the team lead of Brenner Property Group for Keller Williams Capital Partners. Delaware County is Ohio’s wealthiest and best-educated county. The median household income is $100,000 and more than half of the county’s residents, who are 25-years-old and older, hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Located just north of Columbus, the state’s capital, Delaware County’s geographic diversity includes suburban towns, small cities, rolling rural farmlands and clusters of isolated, well-maintained golf and country clubs. Trump won 56% of the county’s vote compared to Clinton’s 40%.
Brenner knows her county’s constituents well, having served a term on the Powell City Council from 2009 to 2013 and broadcast her own online conservative talk radio show during that period, called “The Brenner Brief.” She blogged and published articles on topics ranging from “Liberal Ideology Overreach” to ObamaCare. On the bio page of her website,Brenner calls herself a “brazen” and “snarky conservative.” After she graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in political science and international relations, she chaired the Delaware County Young Republicans Club, where she also met her husband, current State Senator Andrew Brenner. At the time, he was the county recorder. They married in 2009 and the next year, Sara ran his successful six-way primary campaign for state representative. She has helped him win every election campaign ever since, including his tight midterm victory last November in his first state senate race. Brenner’s district, the 19th, includes parts of Franklin County, which is essentially Columbus, a Democratic stronghold.
Regardless, Andrew Brenner was not the only Republican who ran a surprisingly tight race in Ohio’s 2018 midterm elections. Republican Governor Mike DeWine beat out Democrat Richard Cordray by fewer than four percentage points, losing the white, college-educated women vote by 13 points. This was only two years after Trump won those same votes comfortably. Sara Brenner pointed out that her husband still polled and performed better than Republican Congressman Troy Balderson did in an August 2018 special election. Balderson barely won Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, a seat that was traditionally safe for Republicans but was considered too close to call for nearly three weeks after polls closed.
“We wanted the policies,” Brenner said. “We knew we weren’t getting a prince charming.”
In Sara Brenner’s opinion, it will take more outreach and grassroots campaigning on issues other than abortion for Republicans to retain the support of college-educated suburban women in 2020. “Women aren’t stupid,” Brenner said. “I think there’s still this political belief that we all just run on emotion and we don’t.” In 2016, with her husband, Brenner co-chaired the Trump campaign’s Ohio operations from its central Columbus office. She said she didn’t support Trump until December 2015 while her husband supported former Ohio Governor John Kasich through the primaries. He didn’t join her in the Trump camp until after Kasich pulled out of the race in May 2016.
Ohio and Florida each sent their own Republican primary candidates up against Trump in 2016: then Governor Kasich of Ohio and Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush of Florida. When the three stepped out of the race, support for Trump among the women interviewed wasn’t automatic. In Ohio, evidence of that tension was significantly more pronounced. “John Kasich lives in Delaware County, does that tell you anything?” Brenner said, laughing loudly as she recalled the 2016 environment before she became a serious Trump supporter. She and other Ohio women described feelings of intense mistrust and animosity between the Kasich and Trump camps that still lingers, making them less certain of a 2020 Trump win.
Brenner’s priorities for choosing a candidate in 2020 are the same as they were in 2016. She wants to see economic policies that support business growth with lower taxes and fewer regulations. It’s the No. 1 reason why she’s supporting the president’s re-election bid. “There’s a lot of complaining that you see on the media, especially from the left, that these tax policies haven’t helped the middle class, and that’s just malarkey,” Brenner said, wearing a ruby red sweater poncho that matched the red Keller Williams paint splashed on the walls. “I mean, the savings that we’re gonna see are tremendous.” She said they have been “very, very, very beneficial”to her family. “And that’s money that I’m throwing back into hiring.”
The Brenners live in Powell, the same Delaware County city of 12,000 inhabitants where Sara served as councilman six years ago. Powell, with a median household income of $139,851, is wealthier than the county as a whole and has a higher concentration of college-graduates. Some 75% of its residents who are 25-years-old and older are college-graduates. That’s double the national averages.
Twenty minutes south of Columbus is the other side of “Trump Country.” Dull snow blanketed abandoned farmlands, trailer parks replaced gated residential communities and droves of trucks consumed the under-maintenanced highway. These are all reminders of the Buckeye State’s place at the center of the nation’s Rust Belt, a nickname for the northeastern and midwestern parts of the country where declining industry, aging factories and a struggling working class characterize cities once propped up by steel production. Trump’s success in such areas and across Appalachia helped crystallize the prevailing image of the Trump supporter as a white, uneducated man from rural America.
Brenner said job loss under Obama and the moderate Kasich, even though he was a Republican, had a huge impact on how Ohioans voted in 2016. “There were a lot of counties that had not gone Republican in ages that went Republican,” Brenner said about the general election results. “And if you look at the demographic there, it’s the blue-collar middle class, often times union-worker type of person who voted for Trump.” Trump won the middle class, blue-collar worker vote across the Rust Belt states for many of the same reasons Obama won Ohio four and eight years earlier: these voters want real economic change and they want a President they could trust.
Brenner went on. “You did have enough women in the suburban areas who voted for [Trump]. Not because our husbands told us to like Hillary Clinton thought,” she said. “But just – we care about financial and economic things, too. And that’s where he’s very promising and where he’s started to make a difference.” She does not support the idea of a 2020 Republican challenger and will vote for the President regardless of what he does or does not accomplish in the next 18 months. As for a Democrat? She once “loved” Joe Biden, but lost faith in him after his vice presidency. Now none of the Democrats in the 2020 presidential field are moderate enough to win Brenner’s vote.
Three hours later and another 20 minute drive north from Worthington to Delaware’s downtown center, 55-year-old Cheryl Krause sat at a white table with metal chairs in Ciao Cafe. Delaware is the county seat of Delaware County and is a city, although it has a small, suburban town feel with brick-lined sidewalks that match brick-front buildings, short folksy light posts and a number of family friendly stores and quaint ice cream shops. Two blocks down from Ciao was Delaware County’s GOP headquarters. It was closed at the time, but a lifesize photo of Donald Trump giving two thumbs up shown in the doorway and a framed poster of Vice President Mike Pence hung in the window facing the street.
At first, Krause said, “I was not a Trump supporter at all.” Her southern accent was stronger than Nealis’s and she spoke with a slow and deliberate pace. “And it was a dilemma, it really was. So I’ve just been very pleased with how it’s turned out.” Krause moved to Ohio from Pembroke Pines in Broward County, Florida only weeks before the presidential election and voted as a Florida absentee. She had cast a vote for Rubio in the primary but considers herself “so conservative I lean towards libertarian.” Voting for George W. Bush was an example of her voting for a moderate, she said. While Trump’s lack of political experience was in some ways appealing to Krause, but it also made her skeptical of whether he would govern “in a conservative manner.” Two years into Trump’s first term, Krause said, “so far, so good.”
It surprised her when Trump landed the nomination. “People get excited about Trump. I was shocked,” Krause said. She’s okay with his non-traditional Republicanism because she thinks principles and ideas matter more than a person’s party and individual background. “I didn’t care for his personality,” she said, “but it’s not about the person.”
Krause was born in rural Alabama but grew up in Corpus Christi, South Texas, where she stayed for college. She studied computer science and programming before moving to Houston for work and then Florida in 1992. She has two children with her husband, a daughter who moved to Houston and a son who lives in Lewis Center, another suburb in Delaware County not far from Krause. She moved here to be closer to her son, daughter-in-law and their infant daughter, Krause’s first grandchild. Close to her family, Krause said her son is very conservative and leans to the far right, as she does. She said her 31-year-old daughter-in-law, Victoria Krause, voted for Trump, too. However, when contacted, Victoria, a Cuban-American and registered Republican who avoids family conflict, said Trump was too much of a bully and that she actually voted for Clinton.
Krause said she was raised in a very conservative household with strong conservative values, passed down largely by her father who was a helicopter pilot for the US Army. Since moving to Ohio, she’s joined the Delaware County Women’s Republican Club and wrote a blog post for the organization’s site titled “Why I’m a Republican Woman.” “I think I’m more conservative than a lot of the conservatives in Ohio with my views towards taxation and government involvement,” Krause said. As reasons for sticking with Trump, she pointed to Trump’s tax reform bill and commitment to rewrite trade deals, adding that consumers today appear optimistic and manufacturing’s looking a little better. Trump’s lack of political experience did not trouble her, though she didn’t like that he had filed for bankruptcy in the past. She at one point was enamored of his celebrity, his “Madonna or Lady Gaga”-like ability to “manipulate new media.”
In the next two years, Krause wants Trump to lay off Twitter, put more thought into his cabinet picks, reform healthcare and finish securing the border. “It would take another extremely strong conservative to move me from supporting the current president,” Krause said, “and the Democratic party would just have to change everything they stand for.” She doesn’t think any of the issues that Democrats put forward are important or relevant. “The last thing in the world a woman in Delaware County cares about is who’s using what bathroom in Target. You know? Nobody cares about that. They’re worried much more about what I call ‘kitchen table issues.’ They wanna know about the jobs and the economy and regulations and insurance,” Krause said. She was quick to reject any link between her gender and how she votes, saying she sees issues more “through the lens of a person who’s run small businesses.”
Krause no longer sees the need for a president to be a moral leader. “Bill Clinton ruined it,” she said. Besides, voting for Trump isn’t the same as hiring him to be a preacher, Krause said. She turns to Jesus for that.