In his northern Missouri town of about 6,000, Vincent Harris suspects he was one of the most vocal supporters President Donald Trump had there.
The 54-year-old Navy veteran was a self-described “deplorable” (a reference to Hillary Clinton’s notorious dig at Trump supporters in 2016). He fiercely defended the #MAGA mindset on social media, acting as one of the president’s model “keyboard warriors.”
But his staunch support for Trump began to slip as the coronavirus began to spread.
“Up until that time, I felt like the press had been uncharacteristically hard on him,” Harris said. For him, Trump’s “disregard for science” amid a pandemic marked a turning point that warranted national scrutiny.
Harris grew frustrated and discouraged as he watched Trump contradict the country’s top public health experts from the White House podium, downplaying the threat of the virus in the U.S. and hawking unproven treatments.
“I think what some may perceive as attacks from the media now are very fair, are accurate and are pointing out the inconsistencies that are incredibly dangerous from a public health perspective,” said Harris, a lifelong Republican.
Older Americans were key to securing Trump’s victory in 2016. But some ― including Harris, who supported the president in the last election ― aren’t so firmly in his camp this time around, a shift that could present a hurdle for Trump as he seeks a second term.
Among voters 45 to 64 years old, Trump outperformed Clinton by a 4-point margin, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey of more than 64,000 voters organized by Harvard University and administered by YouGov. The same survey showed Trump won voters 65 and older by a hefty margin of about 13 points.
This time around, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of national polls, voters 55 and older are almost evenly split between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden’s appeal to older voters, especially to those who are 65 and older, had been evident long before the United States’ first documented COVID-19 death in February. But Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis could push even more of those voters toward the presumptive Democratic candidate. The vast majority of Trump voters are likely to stay with him, but in a close election, even a small erosion in support could prove important.
A survey conducted by HuffPost earlier this month showed 45% of voters aged 45 to 64 disapprove of Trump’s response to the pandemic, compared to 54% who approve. The objection is stronger among voters 65 and older, with 56% who disapprove compared to 41% who approve.
Still, Trump maintains strong backing overall from those who voted for him in 2016, according to the poll. Just 12% of Trump voters disapprove of his response, with a staggering 85% who approve, the poll showed.
Melody Paquin of Barrow County, Georgia, is one of the former.
“He acts like everything comes down to money, like he doesn’t really care about the people,” Paquin, 69, said. “I have a daughter who is a nurse, and she puts herself at risk all the time. So if she can do that, why can’t he man up and do his job in a professional manner?”
Paquin said she’s been a strong Republican for as long as she can remember and was first drawn to Trump because he was a businessman. But his initial decision to publicly shrug off the virus’ potential threat, followed by his push to reopen the country despite a dearth in testing capacity and hospital preparedness, repelled her in recent months.
“Testing, testing, testing ― if that would have been done very early on, we wouldn’t have the mass number of deaths that we have had,” Paquin said.
“He was running his mouth about everybody having [personal protective equipment] while my own daughter in a big hospital was having to reuse masks,” she added. “He just lied and lied and lied.”
Paquin said she would rather vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders — who dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination last month — than for Biden. But she added that she isn’t ruling out voting for a Democrat in 2020. She indicated she would consider voting for almost anyone who isn’t Trump and who tells the truth (including actor Sean Penn, apparently).
Starting To Question Things
Like Paquin, Harriette Sucher, a 61-year-old in Northern California, voted for Trump because of what she considered to be his business acumen. She said she “started to question things” when Trump appeared to ignore the warnings coming from Chinese doctors about the virus. His dubious suggestion that injecting disinfectant might help COVID-19 patients recover didn’t help.
“I started seeing a less intelligent man who’s not understanding the simple science,” Sucher said. She added: “It really matters how we handle this COVID-19 pandemic as a nation and how our leaders handle it. This disease does not know political boundaries.”
Sucher isn’t sure whom she’ll vote for in November. There’s a slight chance she’ll go for Biden, but she worries about his age, she said.
The decision is more straightforward for others, such as 51-year-old Stephanie Rivers of western Massachusetts. She’s one of roughly 40 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the midst of the economic crash caused by the pandemic.
“I looked to our president to guide us and make hard decisions to protect Americans, but what I saw and heard from him was anything but leadership,” said Rivers, an independent who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past.
She said she supported Trump in 2016 because she felt he offered a better plan for job creation and economic stimulus than Clinton. But his botched response to the virus — including offering misinformation and frequently lambasting the media — caused her to withdraw her support. Barring the emergence of a third-party candidate, she said she’ll likely vote for Biden this year.
HuffPost heard from several past Trump voters who cited his rejection of science amid the pandemic as their top reason for dumping him in 2020. Of course, this isn’t the first time the president has undermined his own scientists.
Trump has kneecapped U.S. environmental policy, pulled out of an international climate agreement and buried his own government’s global warming report, which warned of catastrophic consequences for failing to act.
Asked why, if science was his biggest concern, he didn’t speak out against the president sooner, Harris pointed to his exasperation with Democrats. He said he was so angered by their accusations of Russian collusion against Trump’s 2016 campaign and the negative impact it had on the president’s ability to fulfill campaign promises that he was able to look past the president’s potential shortcomings.
Plus, the threat of the pandemic feels more immediate than global warming, making it a concern that’s easier to push to the back of his mind, Harris said.
Paquin believes Trump is committing “political suicide” with the way he’s handling the coronavirus crisis. Harris, however, appears unconvinced that the president’s rhetoric will be reflected in the larger pool of past Trump voters.
He said he turned many people onto Trump, but those same people didn’t follow him when he began questioning the president’s coronavirus response. Friends he’s had for 40 years asked whether he had lost his mind, he said.
“If you would have asked me before this pandemic … if Trump followers were cultish, I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” Harris said. “At this point, I would tell you that what I’m seeing from some of the people who are ardent supporters of Trump is very synonymous with cult behavior.”
HuffPost received several emails from Trump voters who said they believe he’s done a stellar job navigating the pandemic. Others said they aren’t thrilled with his response but will stick with him for other reasons, namely his support for Israel and his tax cuts.
Neither Paquin nor Harris felt ready to commit to voting for Biden in November. But both suggested it seemed unlikely they could cast a ballot in favor of Trump, a man they once believed would bring spirited change to the country.
“This guy is refuting one of the most knowledgable disease experts in the world in the middle of a pandemic,” Harris said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert on the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“I will take a president who embraces science over a president who rejects science any day,” Harris added, “even if they are a Democrat. Even if that means having to vote for Biden.”
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.
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