Elaine Caruso voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He seemed to be the candidate who would better protect the country from foreign threats, which Caruso, who lived across the Hudson River from Manhattan on 9/11, feared.
“I thought, we need somebody who has a set — we need a tough guy,” said Caruso, 58, who now lives in Northeast Pennsylvania. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that thug would turn on us.”
Trump won half of the votes cast by white women in Pennsylvania in 2016, according to exit polls, helping him narrowly win the state. But with Election Day just two weeks away and voting already underway, polls suggest those voters are abandoning the president in droves. Only 37% of white women in the state support him, according to a Quinnipiac survey earlier this month, a finding similar to other polls in Pennsylvania and other battleground states.
If that big shift holds, it could help deliver Pennsylvania — and the White House — to Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
In interviews across the state, women cited what they see as Trump’s failed leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, his inflammatory response to protests against systemic racism, and an overall lack of empathy as reasons to vote against him.
But there’s something else at play, too: Women have been getting involved with local Democratic Party politics even in more rural areas since his election, injecting energy into places where the party didn’t have much visibility.
These are still overwhelmingly Republican areas where Trump will almost certainly win, but where women say they can drive down his margins of victory. And that, combined with Trump’s political collapse with suburban voters and the more recent erosion of his support among older voters, could prove politically fatal in a state that is seen as likely to decide who wins the White House.
For Caruso, of Kresgeville, Monroe County, the turning point was watching protesters teargassed in Lafayette Square in June.
“When I saw what happened ... I actually broke down crying. It scared me,” Caruso said. “I thought I was living in communist Russia.”
“Up until that point," she added, “I guess I was doing what a lot of other women did, which is we ignore half of what he says — tell ourselves he’s getting the job done no matter what vulgar things he’s said about us.”
Trump’s most targeted appeal to women has been his repeated warnings that urban violence will come into suburban areas and small towns. Trump himself acknowledged his weakness with women at a rally in Johnstown last week. “Suburban women, will you please like me?" he said. “I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
Despite the suburban message, the 2020 campaign has increasingly played out in white working-class areas of Pennsylvania, as Trump looks to grow his support there and Biden hopes to appeal in ways Hillary Clinton did not.
Polls consistently show Biden holding a sizable but not overwhelming advantage in the state. Trump still leads Biden by about six percentage points among men. Barb Peace, a cattle and hog farmer in Clarksburg, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said that Trump’s trade policies have been horrible for farmers in the region — but that men she knows there support him anyway.
“They’re selling their cattle, losing their farms, and they’re still voting for him because he’s a man and that’s what they feel a man is supposed to act like," said Peace, who voted for Clinton in 2016. “There are a lot of insecure men who back Trump. It’s the women who have started to wise up.”
That momentum started after Trump’s election in such places as Indiana County, where Ann Rea took over as the county Democratic chair two years ago. She’d gone to Washington for the women’s march and then formed a group — called, somewhat tongue in cheek, COW (Coalition of Women) — with other women, including Peace, in the area. Now, Rea said that organizing, combined with the pandemic and four years of Trump’s divisive style, has made it easier to find political converts.
“The pandemic has been crucial, but also I think his character is becoming so clear and people are offended by that, the lack of seriousness and the lack of responsibility," Rea said.
“And I think also, the racism," she added. “Women aren’t tolerating it.”
That’s largely why, Tina McHugh, said she’s turning her back on the president. McHugh, 54, lives in Lehighton, a small Northeast Pennsylvania town in rural Carbon County. She backed Trump in 2016 because she thought he’d be good for the economy. “I looked at him as the guy from New York who owns a lot of properties,” she said.
Now? “Oh my God, I really have to tell you: I really, really despise him,” said McHugh. "And I look at him now as a character, not a president.”
McHugh was offended when she saw Trump throwing rolls of paper towels at relief workers responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2018. Her boyfriend is Puerto Rican.
She’s on disability and takes care of her 13-year-old grandson. She refurbishes furniture to help pay her bills.
“When he started saying he was going to make things better for the suburbs by keeping low-income people out, that angered me," McHugh said. “I’m low-income. I don’t deserve to live in a nice neighborhood?”
She said people around Lehighton point to the onetime coronavirus stimulus checks, negotiated in Congress and signed by Trump earlier this year, as evidence he is helping the economy. The prospects for further relief have faltered as Trump has alternated between demanding lawmakers reach a deal and saying it must wait until after the election.
“No one here got any long-term help,” she said.
Education and poverty are clear political dividing lines, especially in rural areas.
“I would think less than half of people here have a 401(k), let alone know what it means when the stock market does well," said Peace, the farmer from Clarksburg. “But if Donald Trump gets on TV and says, ‘I’m gonna make sure everyone has jobs,' they’re like, ‘Great.’”
Peace said she hears from women who tell her they dislike Trump, “but either their husband or church has encouraged them to vote for him.”
"I try to stress to those women: When you go to the voting booth the church isn’t with you. Your husband isn’t with you!” Peace said.
Plenty of women are still backing Trump, such as Laureen Cummings, a former Lackawanna County commissioner and nurse who lives in Old Forge, near Scranton.
"Nobody interferes with my ability to decide who to vote for,” Cummings said. “Women can think for themselves, and I hate to tell you but they think Trump’s been pretty good to them. President Trump supports women in business.”
At a rally a few years ago in Harrisburg, Trump called Cummings out personally as a beneficiary of his tax cuts. She said her geriatric nursing business was thriving before the pandemic. “I think he loves this country and his policies show how he’s trying to help the Average Joes and the Average Janes,” Cummings said.
Nationally, women are more likely than men to be registered Democrats, by about 10 percentage points, driven in part by more liberal positions on issues including spending on government aid, same-sex marriage, and military use of force.
Courtney Kubovcik mostly voted for Republicans until Trump’s election. A social worker, she now canvasses for the progressive group Voices of Westmoreland, a Democratic group in one of the counties that has swung the most toward Trump of any in the state. She said men often tell her they associate the Democratic Party with weakness.
“A lot of them aren’t able to connect with the progressive movement or the social justice movement because they perceive it as weak," Kubovcik said. “It’s for women, it’s women’s work. Most of the men that I’ve interacted with are not very concerned with the welfare of other people. They’re very much into that whole mind-set of Western independence and rugged individualism, which, I think, is sad.”
Amanda Goller, a child-abuse investigator for Cambria County, said she thinks it’s actually the toughness of rural white women that’s leading to a shift.
“We come from hardworking fathers and grandfathers, and for a man to say, ‘Grab 'em by the p—,’ or that I should be in the kitchen working, is disgusting," said Goller, 32, who lives in Johnstown. "These women are just not going to put up with it. They want better for themselves and for their girls.”
Back in Kresgeville, where Elaine Caruso is waiting for her mail ballot to arrive, election season has her reflecting on four years ago. “I’ve had to sit back with myself and think: ‘OK, you’re a bright woman. What made you vote for him? What words did you hear?'" Caruso said.
“He’s a really good con and some people will let him con them," she said. “But that’s the only base he’s got left. Because I really think he alienated everybody else.”