They Voted For Obama, Then Trump—Now What? : The NPR Politics Podcast Understanding the motivation of voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania is key to understand the 2016 coalition that allowed President Trump to notch a decisive electoral college victory. Is Joe Biden doing enough to draw that support back to the Democratic column?

This episode: political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, national political correspondent Don Gonyea, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and political reporter Abigail Censkey of WKAR in Michigan.

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They Voted For Obama, Then Trump—Now What?

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GREGORY: Hi. This is Gregory (ph) from Portland, Ore., where I am celebrating my very first day of retirement. This podcast was recorded at...


2:09 p.m. on September 15, 2020.

GREGORY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I most likely will still be retired, and I also will have checked off item No. 11 on my bucket list - send a time stamp to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. OK. Here's the show.


KURTZLEBEN: What a guy.


KURTZLEBEN: Congratulations, Gregory. That's wonderful.

Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, also.

KURTZLEBEN: And we've also got a special guest. We have Abigail Censky of Michigan member station WKAR.

Great to talk to you again, Abigail.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: And today we have Abigail here, as well as Don, because they have been out talking to voters. They've both been out in battleground states talking to folks. And so we're here to hear from them what sort of things they've been picking up on the ground.

So, Don, let's start with you.

GONYEA: So I've been in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania, up on Lake Erie, Erie County and the city of Erie, Pa. And here's the thing about Erie County and this election - this is a place that knows it matters. Four years ago, it was one of those counties that flipped. Trump won it by just a whisker. Here is something that you do notice this year compared to when I rolled through this area in 2016 - you actually see lots of Biden/Harris yard signs. Four years ago, Trump just owned the yard sign contest. Again, those aren't votes, but they do tell you something about enthusiasm.

And I had a conversation downtown with Erie City Council Member Michael Keys. And, Danielle, it did not take much prodding to get him to look back and start complaining about the campaign that the Democrats ran here in 2016. He said they felt ignored by the Hillary Clinton campaign. When campaign staff came to town, they were always out-of-towners. They didn't know the neighborhoods. He says it feels different this year.

KURTZLEBEN: So it sounds like what you said about those yard signs - there might be a sort of - the causality might work both ways there, right? They might be a sign of enthusiasm. They also might be a sign of the campaigns being more engaged there, right?

GONYEA: That's right. And he says one thing that really helps this year, especially among African American voters, is that Biden has chosen a woman of color as his running mate.

MICHAEL KEYS: I think people are excited about having the first woman of color on the ticket. And we've been driving by in neighborhoods, you know, where you don't see political activity - you see the Biden signs.

GONYEA: But - and this is important - he stresses that Democrats can't drop the ball. They still have work to do to avoid a repeat of four years ago.

KEYS: We have to turn out our communities of color. If they stay home again, we'll lose again.

GONYEA: It's that simple.

KEYS: It's that simple, sir.

LIASSON: Don, so if Biden is doing so well in the suburbs, what it sounds like his goal in the places you went to is just not to do as badly as Hillary Clinton did. You can't - he can lose those areas but not by huge amounts. So how do the Democrats that you talked to think he's doing?

GONYEA: They think he's doing much better than she did in 2016 in terms of having a presence on the ground and in terms of engaging and getting people excited. They are, for the first time, setting up rural campaign offices in the tiny, little towns that are scattered around in the out-county areas because if they can lose a township by 20 votes instead of 40 votes or even 30 votes, that all adds up. That all helps.

LIASSON: So the goal is not to be crushed in rural areas.

GONYEA: Exactly.

LIASSON: Build back better is his slogan but, really, lose less badly in the rural areas.


LIASSON: Yeah. Lose less badly.

CENSKY: You know, I frequently run into Obama/Trump voters around Michigan in swingy parts of the state. Are those voters that also exist in the parts of Pennsylvania that you traveled through?

GONYEA: They are absolutely here. And they are actually pretty easy to find. It's probably the reason that, you know, that big double-digit win that Obama had here turned into a narrow Trump victory in 2016. You just can't have that kind of a swing happen without people voting for Obama and then deciding Trump is their guy. And Republicans are still kind of relying on the fact that most of those people are still happy with Trump.

It doesn't mean there aren't some defections. But I talked to one of them, 52-year-old Cynthia Solvet (ph). She voted twice for Obama, then for Trump. She considers herself a moderate Democrat, especially on fiscal issues. And she thinks the new crop of Democrats are just way too far left, and she thinks that reflects on Biden. She doesn't think, you know, Obama was working for people like her by the end of his presidency. So I guess we could say her hope in Obama had faded, so she transferred her hope over to Trump.

CYNTHIA SOLVET: I think the Republicans are starting to come out. There's a quiet majority, they call it. And, you know, you shouldn't be ashamed if you're voting Republican or Democrat. You know, we're all Americans. And let's just - may the best man win.

KURTZLEBEN: You had that city councilman, who is supporting Biden, who sounds very nervous. That Obama/Trump voter you just played doesn't sound - like, sounds a bit more confident. Did you feel like there was a difference in confidence between Trump voters and Biden voters?

GONYEA: Yes. This is over the course of, you know, maybe two dozen interviews, so not a...


GONYEA: ...Scientific sample, but...

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

GONYEA: ...The Trump voters were much more likely to predict an easy win, both in Erie County and in Pennsylvania, for Donald Trump, whereas the Biden voters likely said, it's going to be close, but we think we're going to kind of put Pennsylvania right again and that Erie's going to be part of it. But they're more likely to tell you it's close, and they're more likely to show the anxiety they have about this whole process.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, we're going to leave it there. Let's take a quick break. And after that, Abigail will talk to us about what she's hearing in another important battleground state - Michigan.

And we're back. And, Abigail, you recently filed a story for us about the suburban voters near you there in Michigan. And we all know suburban voters get all this attention every four years. So what big conclusions did you come away with?

CENSKY: I think the biggest conclusion for Michigan is that it's very hard to draw a conclusion in Michigan right now, which is kind of par for the course here. Biden, who's had a steady lead in the polls - but even regular voters, not just pundits and politicians, are mistrustful of the polls after last election. The president won the state by just under 11,000 votes. And it's really all going to come down to which parts of the state turn out.

And places like Williamston, Mich., where I went to do this story - it's really clear to see that walking down the street. You have kind of these dueling yard signs. You'll see a God and country Trump sign and a MAGA flag. And the next house will have a Biden/Harris sign. I talked to a woman, Beth Bush (ph), there on her front porch, and she lives in the middle of all these kind of dueling yard signs. And she's still actually undecided about who she's going to vote for this year. She told me she just generally avoids politics.

BETH BUSH: I don't really engage in conversations like that amongst friends because there's a couple things that you don't talk about unless you're with really, really close people. And I try to stay out of those types of conversations as most as I can.

CENSKY: Bush told me that she needs to do more research on who she'll be voting for this year. But in places like Williamston, even though you have this kind of wearing your heart signs on your sleeve there, a lot of people still don't talk about it. It seems like there are some voters, like Beth Bush, who are caught in the middle and still undecided.

BUSH: I don't like the hate talk. I don't like pigeonholing certain people into things. I don't - and I don't like the perception that the United States has given based on our government leaders. And so, like, that's kind of a big thing for me. And I can't say that either person running for president would be somebody I'd want to choose, to be honest. So it's back to the drawing board.

LIASSON: Well, it sounds like she represents that tiny slice of voters - anywhere from 5% to 12% of people who are still up for grabs. But I'm wondering if you have any gut feeling, Abigail, of who are the shy voters this time. You know, you hear the Trump campaign say, oh, there are all of these secret Trump voters. They don't want to say that they're for him because there's some kind of a stigma in their communities. But then you hear people saying that Biden voters in some of these swing areas are afraid to say they're for Biden. So what's your gut about which candidate has the silent vote this time?

CENSKY: I've talked to fewer voters who believe that there's a silent vote - or voters are, you know, scared to talk about voting for Biden. I've talked to more voters who are actually Democrats in these kind of exurban places that have become more purple in Michigan since 2016. And they say the silent majority for President Trump is decreasing in those places.

GONYEA: Abigail, something I've noticed is that people either seem to like Donald Trump or hate Donald Trump or like Joe Biden or, you know, just reject him. But that district that you're in, that's Elissa Slotkin's district, right? - the Democrat member of Congress who's one of those national security Democrats. I remember when she voted for impeachment. That was going to be, like, the issue in that district, both for her and for the presidential contest. Has that just been, like, wiped away and now it's just you're either for Trump or against him, for Biden or against him?

CENSKY: I think so. I think that's just light-years in many Michiganders' political memory at this point. Over the course of the pandemic, people are more worried about, you know, economic recovery in these places and getting back to work and whether their kids are going to go back to school than, you know, what their feelings were about Elissa Slotkin's impeachment vote at this point.

KURTZLEBEN: That brings up a question I want to throw out to all three of you 'cause I imagine you all have thoughts on this. You know, districts like Elissa Slotkin's or any of the other ones that might have voted for Trump in 2016 but then swung blue to some degree or another in 2018 - what should we take away from that, if anything, looking ahead to 2020? What does that tell us about how Biden might do?

GONYEA: I can tell you in Erie, Trump's reelection is really tested by the fact that the unemployment rate there is now up over 14%.


GONYEA: He won a lot of votes, especially from blue-collar workers at the big locomotive assembly plant that's located right in the city, by railing against NAFTA and railing against trade deals and all that. But a lot of these workers will say, what good has that done us, given how high the unemployment rate is and how they don't feel any more secure in their jobs.

CENSKY: I think places like Williamston - Democrats there have kind of a cautious momentum right now. Again, this is a place that the Republican congressional candidate in 2016 won by 1,700 votes and Elissa Slotkin won by just 306 votes in 2018. And she essentially did that by winning a collection of exurban cities across Michigan in this district and losing better in those other rural areas, kind of like Mara was saying earlier. And there's a feeling that that might be able to happen again, but I think people are unwilling to place their bets on which way it's going to go based on the top of the ticket.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, I'm sure we could go on for many hours more. But for now, we're just going to have to leave it there to keep our podcast manageable length. Abigail, thank you so much. We are so happy to talk to you.

CENSKY: Of course. It was great to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: You can find all the ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode, including our private Facebook group, newsletter and workout playlist. Go sweat out your pre-election tension.

Until then, I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

GONYEA: I'm Don Gonyea. I also cover politics.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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