PITTSBURGH — Chuck Howenstein, a lifelong Democrat, assured his wife he was supporting Hillary Clinton. Then he walked into his voting booth and pushed the button for Donald Trump.
When Trump won, with help from a stunning swing in Pennsylvania, Howenstein, who had supported Barack Obama, couldn’t even tell his wife, Jackie, that he had been part of the shift. She didn’t find out until Chuck was quoted in news reports more than two years later. She is assuaged by one thing: Now, Chuck says, he wants Trump gone.
He sees a president fanning hatred and division, and worries about what scars he has inflicted.
“The future looks bleak to me, very bleak, with what’s going on and if this doesn’t change,” Howenstein said in a recent interview at his home here. Earlier, he said, “You could have a good economy, but if it destroys our country, I don’t want my children to be part of that.”
David Ruminski went through a similar transition — but has come to the opposite conclusion. He hails Trump’s work on the economy, dismisses the president’s incendiary rhetoric as part strategy, part show, and is sold on a second term.
A longtime union member from Erie County, Ruminski voted twice for Obama, but by 2016 felt the Democrat had forgotten people like him.
“He seemed to think America had reached its peak and we had to get ready for a new normal, that my kids’ kids would not be able to succeed like their forefathers,” Ruminski said. “I just really didn’t accept that economic message.”
Howenstein and Ruminski, white 63-year-olds from Western Pennsylvania, represent just one small slice of a diverse electorate. But in a critical state decided by fewer than 44,000 votes in 2016, “Obama-Trump” voters like them played a key role in deciding the election, helping deliver Pennsylvania to a Republican for the first time since 1988.
They could again have an outsize influence in 2020 as Democrats seek to win back some of the voters and states that put Trump over the top.
Studies estimate that between about six million and a little more than nine million voters switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, a sizable figure considering the razor-thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan (decided by 11,000 votes), and Wisconsin (23,000 votes).
These voters tend to be older and whiter, groups disproportionately represented in the Rust Belt. They “are likely to be well distributed geographically for the purpose of electoral impact,” said a May analysis from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a collaboration of scholars and analysts from across the political spectrum.
And unlike most voters, whose views on Trump are locked in, some of these people are up for grabs.
About 66% of Obama-Trump voters still supported the president, according to a January survey of nearly 7,000 people, the Study Group found. That’s a drop from 85% in 2016. They were the only cohort to show a substantial change in views of Trump.
Howenstein embodies that slide. Even a small segment of voters like him could help bring key states back to Democrats. Yet at the same time, some of the early positions staked out by Democratic contenders have worried him, illustrating the challenge for a party trying to energize its liberal base and also win over more moderate voters.
‘He was so different’
As Trump incinerated every rule of politics in 2016, Howenstein couldn’t wait to see what he would do next.
“He was so different, he was exciting,” Howenstein said. “Every time he’s on, he’s going to do something or say something, you know it’s going to be entertaining.”
He thought an outsider like Trump would excise the rot in Washington, while Clinton represented the insider class. “We were so tired of the corruption, that’s why I was against Hillary,” he said. He had often switched allegiances, voting for Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, but also Bill Clinton and Obama.
Howenstein would sometimes defend Trump’s antics, even though Jackie, a loyal Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton, felt Trump got away with things no woman ever could. She couldn’t stand when the Republican came on TV. “I would literally have to get out of the room,” she said.
Their 20-minute commute together would break into political arguments. So Chuck kept his plans to himself. (Despite all they share, their demographic differences — male and female, Jackie having gone to college, Chuck having started work straight out of high school — mirrored many of the splits in 2016.)
But Howenstein’s views changed as Trump continued the nonstop attacks in office. The president’s faltering response to the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., was his breaking point. That disgust has only been reinforced by Trump’s declaration that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to their home countries (despite being U.S. citizens) and the Trump echoes running through the El Paso, Texas, shooter’s anti-immigrant manifesto.
“There’s never been a time in this country like this,” he said. “He stirs the pot and inflames this hatred with this white supremacy and all this stuff.”
Howenstein, who sells fire safety equipment and is semiretired, won’t vote for Trump again, and said his two daughters have had the same change of heart.
‘I’m not a white supremacist, and I’ve never been to Russia’
Ruminski’s decision was easy once Clinton secured the Democratic nomination.
“There was no way I could vote for her, so Trump was it, and it just seemed that anything the media did was to get Trump and that’s their whole agenda,” Ruminski said.
His impression of Clinton ran so deep, he pointed back to 2001, when Clinton administration staffers removed “W’s” from White House keyboards just before George W. Bush took office. “It’s pretty petty s--t, man. Who does that?”
A lifelong Democrat who moved to Erie County for college and then worked in a state welfare office there, Ruminski has grown more supportive of Trump the more criticism he hears of the president. He blames the media and Democrats for wild accusations.
“Since I voted for Trump, I went from being a Russian bot to a white supremacist. I’m not a white supremacist, and I’ve never been to Russia,” he said. He later added, “They’re just pushing me further to that right side.”
Ruminski, of Harborcreek just outside Erie, was part of a wave of onetime Democrats who broke for Trump in rural and small-city Pennsylvania. Obama won Erie County by 19,000 votes in 2012. Clinton lost it by nearly 2,000.
That made Erie one of 14 Pennsylvania counties in which Trump either increased the GOP margin or decreased the Democratic edge by 10,000 votes or more.
Coke and Pepsi
Rich Thau has heard stories like these for months now.
The Main Line research and messaging expert is conducting a series of focus groups in competitive states, interviewing voters who switched sides in each direction in 2016. (Ruminski was part of Thau’s group in Erie County.)
“They’re driven by a search for someone who is going to change things, change the system, change the policies, and also bring a different personality,” said Thau, cofounder and president of Engagious, a public opinion research and messaging firm. “They’re the kind of person who drinks both Coke and Pepsi. They’re not driven by tribalism and ideology.”
Among other common themes: Obama-Trump voters had concerns about immigration; they distrusted Clinton and had regularly switched parties in presidential elections. To them, Thau said, Trump’s attacks on trade deals and immigration touched on the same underlying worry: outsiders taking advantage of America.
“If things go right, he gets the credit. If things go wrong, everyone else gets the blame.”
“For them, this is about America changing, and changing in a way that they’re not comfortable with,” Thau said. “These are people who feel, and they’ve made this abundantly clear, that we need to put Americans first. … They look at it as a zero-sum game.”
Stephen Morgan, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, found similar traits in a broad study of swing voters. They were more likely to feel economically insecure and hold centrist views on trade and immigration. Their attitudes on racial issues, such as affirmative action, however, aligned more with establishment Republicans, Morgan found in an analysis based on the American National Election Study, an in-depth, nonpartisan survey of voters.
“That’s why whites tended to be overrepresented in Obama-to-Trump voters,” Morgan said, though he argued they generally were not motivated by racial animus, having voted for the first African American president.
Most of those voters have stuck with Trump, according to both broad polling and Thau’s focus groups, which so far have included 66 people, 49 of whom supported the president.
“If things go right, he gets the credit. If things go wrong, everyone else gets the blame,” Thau said.
About one-third of the Obama-Trump voters he has interviewed have expressed at least an interest in voting Democratic in 2020. For those wavering, Trump’s behavior has been the driving repellent, Thau said.
But they’re also wary of Democrats’ most liberal proposals.
In the back of a packed union hall, Howenstein looked over the reporters hammering at their laptops, and joked about how serious everyone looked.
Not far from his Pittsburgh home, he had come to Joe Biden’s first campaign rally. Biden spoke that April day about a “battle for America’s soul.” Important to Howenstein, he heard no name-calling or personal attacks.
He was sold, and spoke to a few reporters about it.
Howenstein thinks Biden can win. But he worries about how other Democrats have attacked him, and, by extension, Obama, while pushing for more liberal policies.
“The bottom line is the biggest prize: We beat Donald Trump. How do we do that? We don’t beat each other up all the way through,” Howenstein said
Considering some of the ideas that have captured attention in the primary, Howenstein said, “I don’t believe in anything free.”
He also worried about calls to loosen enforcement at the border. To him, there are too few resources already for homelessness and other problems. “You should take care of your own first, your own home, before you help your neighbor,” he said.
Howenstein dreams of Biden with a female running mate who later can win the top job. He worries about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two most liberal voices in the primary.
“If that’s the Democrats’ candidate, we’re done,” he said.
‘This is what fighting back looks like’
When Ruminski retired last year and started driving Uber, he noticed the effects of a growing economy.
“I was truly floored at the number of people that had just started working that had aspirational hopes to improve their lives,” Ruminski said, crediting Trump.
He doesn’t follow the president on Twitter, doesn’t watch cable news, and doesn’t take the president’s rhetoric too seriously. He volunteered at a Trump rally in Erie County last year, but at the end of a long shift stayed for only part of the speech.
“Come on, he’s on reality TV, we know what the guy is about. It’s not a surprise, right?” Ruminski said. “He’s a blowhard, isn’t he?" He chalks it up to Trump’s being a hot-blooded New Yorker, and laying traps for opponents.
As for recent warnings about the economy, Ruminski sees another media hit. “That’s just the next thing to get Trump, isn’t it?"
He’s also unimpressed by the Democratic contenders, especially those who argue for providing health coverage to undocumented immigrants. Ruminski doesn’t have health insurance and pays for doctor visits out-of-pocket.
“They want to give illegal aliens free health care and I’m standing here and I have to pay for it,” he said.
And despite souring on Obama, he doesn’t think these Democrats measure up. “He was well-spoken and delivered a powerful, positive message.” In the current crop, “I really don’t see that.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Clinton administration staffers removed the W’s from White House keyboards in 2001, not 2002.