Swing voters on Trump: 'He drives me crazy but he'll get my vote'

Chris McGreal in Howard County, Iowa
Swing voters on Trump: 'He drives me crazy but he'll get my vote'. In the latest dispatch from counties where voters swung from Obama to Trump, Chris McGreal finds residents of Howard county, Iowa, pining for calmer days but many crediting the president on the economy

It is Neil Shaffer’s job to get Donald Trump re-elected in a patch of rural Iowa that saw the largest swing in voters in the country from America’s first black president to one of its most divisive in 2016. But even Shaffer, the Republican party chair in Howard county, is not sure he’ll be voting for Trump again.

The voters who migrated from Barack Obama to Trump in the county on Iowa’s border with Minnesota were among nearly 8 million across the US who switched parties four years ago. In swing states such as Iowa they were decisive in delivering the White House to the Republicans.

Shaffer is confident that Trump can win their support again. He argues that what the president’s opponents see as his negatives – his litany of false claims, Twitter battles and impeachment – will only strengthen a presidential campaign again built around the image of the outsider fighting the system.

“He’s still a Don Quixote. People like that. They like a fighter,” said Shaffer.

But the Republican county chair, a former farmer who works in river conservation, is not without doubts. He calls himself a 60/40 Republican because he likes most of what he sees about Trump. Shaffer thinks the president has been good for the economy and is pleased with his conservative picks for the supreme court.

Shaffer also rates Trump for not getting the country into any big wars, unlike the last Republican in the White House – at least for now, as the world awaits the fallout of the US assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani.

But Shaffer struggles with Trump’s divisiveness, deeply dislikes his hostility to immigrants and wishes he would get off Twitter. So while he is already mapping out the president’s campaign in Howard county, he has also been checking out the Democratic presidential contenders.

“I’ve toyed with this whole idea of Pete Buttigieg just because I love his positive message. That was what was so endearing about Ronald Reagan. It was always that shining city on the hill. Morning in America. Tomorrow’s a new day, and it’s always gonna be better,” he said of one of the Democratic frontrunners in Iowa. “I went and saw Pete Buttigieg in Decorah. Sounded very moderate, very positive. Hardly even mentioned Trump, which I like. I like to listen to the plans not just the negativity.”

A 40% swing vote from Obama to Trump

Howard county led a slew of counties across the midwest that flipped from Obama to Trump by significant margins four years ago and snatched the White House from Hillary Clinton even though she won the popular vote.

The swing of more than 40% to Trump in Howard county, alongside the surge in support for him in other parts of north-eastern Iowa, helped deliver the state to the president by the biggest Republican margin since Reagan’s first victory in 1980.

In other midwestern states, big swings were instrumental in squeezing out narrow victories. In Wisconsin, Trump overturned a 213,000-vote margin for Obama in 2012 to win by less than 23,000 or 0.77% of the ballot. In Michigan, the president pulled off the narrowest margin of victory in the history of presidential elections in the state with a win by just 10,704 votes.

This week, and at various stages in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the Guardian is returning to three counties in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan that flipped from Obama to Trump to ask which way they will go in November.

Trump knows he can count on his core supporters, the ones frequently seen on television screens in Maga hats during his rallies. They will excuse him of almost anything. But victory in counties like Howard – struggling midwestern farm territory with about 9,000 residents and 98% white – depends on a different set of voters. Among them are women like spa owner Holly Rasmussen, who backed Obama twice and then flipped to Trump because she wanted to “shake things up”.

Rasmussen is typical of a kind of voter found across swing counties who have plenty of doubts about the president but give him credit for one big thing – the economy – and have yet to be presented with a reason not to vote for him again even as Trump’s critics attack him as a white nationalist, climate crisis denier and over dealings with Ukraine that have drawn accusations of treason.

Rasmussen backed Trump in 2016 because she was “completely sick” of what she regarded as government overregulation of her cosmetology school, which she closed in frustration, opening a spa and salon in its place.

Mostly she thinks Trump has done what he said he would. Rasmussen mentions a commonly heard observation in Howard county that there are more jobs than workers even though one in 10 of the population lives under the poverty line.

“If you don’t have a job you’re not looking,” she said. “The factories have trouble finding workers … That is one thing I think is a lot better and I think that is one thing President Trump did do right.”

Confidence in the economy has risen sharply during Trump’s three years in office and the president gets a good deal of credit for that even if Democrats say the ground was laid by Obama or question the quality of those jobs. That’s a big plus for him in parts of America where steady work at decent pay can still be found even if few people feel prosperous. For that they are prepared to forgive Trump other sins.

Rasmussen largely ignored the impeachment hearings until she caught a news report on a morning television show and began to pay attention. But she thinks the process is politically motivated and so far it has not shifted her support for the president.

But Rasmussen, like a majority of Republicans, is concerned about some of Trump’s public statements and perpetual tweeting.

“The thing that drives me crazy is he just needs to climb down. I’m not a Twitter fan,” she said. “He seems so angry.”

Still, when Trump claims he is being unfairly treated there’s a twinge of recognition among those voters who see an east coast liberal establishment that has painted them as white supremacists and fellow travellers for voting for him. For those who supported Obama and then jumped to Trump, accusations of racism don’t add up and are mostly interpreted as a smear intended to discount concerns whether it’s about the deepening struggle of the middle class to stay afloat financially or communities that feel increasingly alienated and left behind.

Rasmussen said she isn’t locked into voting for Trump again but so far hasn’t been persuaded not to, although like many others she is waiting to see who the Democratic candidate is.

“I’m very open-minded, and I was last time,” she said. “I don’t see a huge downswing in support for Trump in the people I talk to. They’ll say the same thing. Zip it a little bit. Bring it in. Calm down. But I don’t see them saying I’m not going to vote for him because he won’t do that.”

Democrats challenge

Some Democrats are tempted to turn away from the midwest, retreating from fighting to win a region that is whiter and older than many other parts of the country in favour of focusing on young and minority voters to deliver victory in emerging battlegrounds such as the south. But states such as Michigan and Wisconsin remain within reach for the Democrats and are crucial in putting together the electoral college votes to win the White House.

In Iowa, the challenge for Democrats is to flip back voters like Rasmussen, or find new ones to offset her support for Trump, and again win a state Obama took with two thumping victories.

In Howard county that falls to Laura Hubka, a US navy veteran who chairs the local Democratic party and who, like Shaffer, has also shifted her thinking over the past four years.

Hubka was an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016. After Clinton lost the election, she quit the party in disillusionment and wrote a furious denunciation of the Democrats under the headline “We are not the ones we were waiting for”.

“We say ‘the truth is on our side,’ but what if we are part of the lie?” wrote Hubka who was a member of the Iowa Democratic state central committee and chair of the party in Howard county.

Hubka said in the blog that the party’s 2016 campaign was out of touch with the “99% of American people who are struggling to work, live, eat and find some sort of American dream” because the Democrats stopped talking to ordinary people and took their votes for granted.

In March 2018, Hubka returned to the Democrats and again became the party chair in Howard county. But she is not convinced that the party’s national leadership has learned the lessons she flagged up in her resignation blog. “I don’t know that they’ve come very far on it,” she said.

Hubka, though, has changed. Sanders’ loss in 2016 was a salutary lesson. She was drawn in by his plans for publicly funded healthcare for all and his long history of campaigning against income inequality. Hubka thought the energy of Sanders’ organisation and support would sweep him to the nomination.

“And then when we butted up against reality. I could see where America was and OK, we’re not there yet,” she said.

This time around, Hubka is backing Buttigieg because she said he is less strident on issues such as healthcare reform, with his plan for a public insurance option alongside private plans. She also thinks Buttigieg is more appealing and less vulnerable to attack on his record than Joe Biden.

The latest pollhas Buttigieg in a three-way tie with Sanders and the former vice-president in next month’s Iowa caucus although the Indiana mayor trails behind his closest rivals in national polls.

Hubka also reckons that if the message of the 2016 election was that voters wanted to shake up the system, after four years of Trump they are looking for something different. “I feel from people that they want calm. They’re tired. Trump says crazy shit,” she said.

The battle

Shaffer agrees that many voters are looking for less confrontational leadership and acknowledges that Trump is not the man to calm things down.

“That’s going to be the battle. Trump thinks the system’s a problem whereas Buttigieg or Biden are going to say the system can fix the problems. It’s a whole different way of looking at how to solve problems,” he said.

Which has left Shaffer torn because both appeal to him in their way. He, like many Americans, wants to see politicians work together but he also wants significant changes to the system.

“I think my libertarian leanings allow me to be more open-minded to both sides of the political spectrum. I honestly wouldn’t have had a hard time voting for Bill Clinton. Pete Buttigieg, he’s got some cultural issues. Obviously, his gayness is an issue. But we elected our first black man as president and we came pretty darn close to having our first woman as president. So I don’t see that as that big of an issue today as it was 20 years ago.”

One problem Shaffer won’t have to face this year is the indifference of a Trump campaign that never really seemed to believe it could win four years ago. In 2016, the GOP county chair struggled to get hold even of basic campaign material to meet an unexpected demand for Vote Trump yard signs that were an early indication he was going to do better than predicted.

“I had to go to a local sign store and have them design a sign and pay for it,” he said.

This year, the national Republican party has already sent a campaign instruction manual. Shaffer and the county GOP leadership held their first meeting on re-election strategy in December.

“I think our ground game has been pretty well thought out. It’s very hi-tech. There’s a lot of apps and types things for door knocking and stuff.”

Shaffer finds that, the economy aside, Trump’s primary appeal is in ways that can seem un-Republican. The president’s battles with the military hierarchy and the FBI may not go down well with the GOP leadership but Shaffer reckons Trump’s willingness to call it as he sees it has bolstered his credibility with ordinary voters.

“He exposed the Bushes for being warlike and saying that Iraq was a mistake,” he said. “A lot of people in the back of their minds thought that. But for patriotism, you didn’t say that.”

That goes down well in a region of the country that has sent disproportionately high number of soldiers to fight and die in conflicts that large numbers of Americans came to see as misguided at best.

“Why are we going over there fighting wars for oil?.”

Trump’s order to kill Suleimani earlier this month may yet test the belief that this is a president reluctant to get the US into new conflicts. But his earlier hesitancy to use force, such as the cancellation of a missile attack on Iran in June that would have cost dozens of lives, buys him the benefit of the doubt for now at least with voters who do not see a president as a warmonger.


Shaffer, though, is disturbed by Trump’s language about immigrants and the enthusiasm in his county for building a wall on the Mexican border even though he said some of the industrial dairy and pig farms in the area are heavily reliant on foreign workers.

“A lot of those are undocumented workers. It’s one of those things that we all know. No one says anything,” he said. “They are here working. They’re doing a tremendous service for our economy. I think Trump has politicised the dangers of it, exploited some tragedies, family tragedies for political gain. Just the like the other side does. It’s sad.”

Trump’s language on immigrants and immigration is central to Kelli Gosch’s view of the president.

In 2004, with a husband serving on the frontline in Afghanistan, she voted for George W Bush. Then she backed Obama twice.

In 2016, she toyed with voting for Trump because she liked his promise to shake up the system and his business-oriented policies.

“When Trump first came on the scene, I’m like, hell, yeah,” said Gosch who moved to the county capital, Cresco, five years ago for her husband to work in his family’s plumbing business. “Then he started talking about the wall and calling all Mexican people criminals. And I’m just like, wait a minute, I’m brown.”

Gosch, who is mixed African American and Aborigine, is struck by “how emboldened people are because the president is emboldening” of racism. Her children are biracial and she describes them as looking more Latino than black. After other pupils saw Gosch at the school gates in Cresco, a 97% white city, they started racially abusing her daughter who is now 14.

“Ever since we moved here – she was in third grade, she’s now in eighth – she has been called a ‘nigger’ several times a year in school,” she said.

Gosch said that the first time her daughter heard the word she did not know what it meant. “Then I’m having to have the uncomfortable conversation with my child about the history of slavery when she’s got a white father in the house.”

Gosch said the school acted swiftly each time but it did not stop the abuse. So she took to social media. “I made it public, calling on the parents to respond to me. And it was amazing. I did not get one bad feedback and I was connecting with people that I didn’t even know,” she said.

But while she appreciated that parents came forward to express their support, she said they denied their own children were responsible for abuses and were dismissive of her view that Trump was creating a climate that legitimised racism.

“I feel like especially in this rural white town, people need to be uncomfortable and they need to talk about things. What I try to convey to people is we’re already in dangerous territory with Trump being in office,” she said.

“Racism has always been there. Bigotry has always been there. People being idiots has always been there. But it was so hush-hush. Even the Ku Klux Klan, they wear masks. But now, when you have the leader of the free world, the most important position in the universe, and he says things that he’s saying, it gives validity to people who are idiots.”

Watch the latest videos from Yahoo UK