CORTLAND, Ohio/BANGOR, Penn. (Reuters) – Tanya Wojciak, a lifelong Republican and suburban mom from northeast Ohio, is the kind of battleground state voter President Donald Trump can’t afford to lose – but already has.
She is angry at Trump’s handling of the novel coronavirus crisis that has killed more than 219,000 Americans, the largest death toll of any country. She lost a friend to COVID-19 in April.
Wojciak, 39, said Trump’s spotty use of masks and repeated attempts to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus – even after being hospitalized for it himself – is “not presidential at all.” She said she regrets voting for him four years ago. A hand-painted Biden sign now graces her front lawn in Cortland.
Some 340 miles (547 km) east, in Bangor, Pennsylvania, Leo Bongiorno says he, too, is voting for Biden after sitting out the 2016 contest.
Customers at Bongiorno’s brewery and eatery, Bangor Trust Brewing, remained scarce even after Pennsylvania began to ease its bar-and-restaurant restrictions in June. Daily COVID-19 infections in the state reached their highest totals since mid-April this month, and Bongiorno says many of his regulars are too nervous to go to bars.
The federal relief loan he received was less than he would have made collecting unemployment checks, and the brewery’s monthly bills dwarf sales. He said the country needs a president who understands what small businesses need to survive a pandemic – and that isn’t Trump. “At this point we’re just sitting here waiting for the creditors to come collect,” Bongiorno said.
Rust Belt battleground states including Ohio and Pennsylvania handed Trump the White House in 2016, and they will again help decide the Nov. 3 election. Four years ago, Trump’s message of economic revitalization won votes from many white, working-class voters who had cast ballots for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012.
Many of those voters remain loyal to the president. Still, support for Trump is slipping in these states this year, and the pandemic is a big reason why. Polling data show the 2020 race is increasingly becoming a referendum on the president’s handling of COVID-19.
Reuters/Ipsos polling, conducted Oct. 9-13, showed 50% of likely voters nationwide feel Biden would be better at managing the pandemic response, compared to 37% for Trump.
Opinion polling in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin shows that voters there, too, think Biden is the better candidate to lead on the coronavirus.
Recent polls by Reuters/Ipsos and others show Biden tied with Trump in Ohio and leading in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, albeit by narrower margins than Biden’s double-digit lead nationally.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said Trump has taken “swift and decisive action on the coronavirus every step of the way.”
“While Democrats continue to play politics with the coronavirus and a vaccine, President Trump continues to lead the country on a path to recovery,” Merritt said in a statement to Reuters.
(For a graphic on how COVID-19 is shaping public opinion in six battleground states, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2FtbGKx)
TUG OF WAR
Voter Wojciak lives in Trumbull County, Ohio; brewery owner Bongiorno resides in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. A Republican presidential candidate had not carried either county in decades until Trump prevailed there in 2016.
Many residents liked Trump’s protectionist trade philosophy, strong defense of gun rights and hard-line stance on immigration. They helped Trump win Trumbull by about 6 percentage points, and Northampton by about 4 percentage points.
Now some have had enough. In September, likely voters in Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, which includes Northampton County, said they would vote for Biden over Trump 51% to 44%, according to a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll. A New York Times/Siena College poll conducted Oct. 2-6 showed likely voters favoring Biden 49% to 43% over Trump in Ohio’s industrial north, a region that includes Trumbull County.
COVID-19 appears to be a factor. Reuters interviews with more than 50 voters across Trumbull and Northampton counties revealed deep-seated frustration with Trump over his downplaying of the disease, and his failure to wear masks consistently and to encourage all Americans to do likewise.
Northampton County has seen more than 300 COVID-19 deaths, or about 100 per 100,000 residents – well above the national average of about 66 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people. At least 76 of the county’s fatalities occurred at a single nursing home in Upper Nazareth Township, a community of around 7,000 inhabitants.
Life in Northampton looks almost normal at first glance, with restaurants offering outdoor dining and schoolyards ringing with the crack of baseball bats. But workers here are still feeling the pain of furloughs and lost paychecks; the county’s August unemployment rate was 10.2%, up from 4.9% a year earlier.
Located in eastern Pennsylvania on the New Jersey border, the county has defied the typical Rust Belt narrative. Recent decades have brought industrial losses, including the 2003 dissolution of Bethlehem Steel, once the world’s largest steelmaker. Still Northampton has managed to attract other industries, including medical device manufacturing plants. An influx of warehouses brought additional new jobs, and the county is also home to Lehigh University in Bethlehem and Lafayette College in Easton.
Today, the county is a tug of war between competing political bases. Urban centers Easton and Bethlehem lean left. The so-called Slate Belt to the north – a mix of farms and factories surrounding quaint town centers – is Trump country. Driving its meandering roads early this month, a Reuters reporter counted 77 Trump campaign signs, to just 24 for Biden.
Ohio’s Trumbull County is another once-mighty manufacturing hub that has seen factory jobs flee in the past 30 years. It’s an area Trump claimed in 2016 with promises of economic revival.
Employment in the county, part of the so-called “Steel Valley” that hugs the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, suffered after closures of factories run by General Electric Co, General Motors Co and others. Along quiet streets in communities across the county, some single-family homes, once the pride of the middle-class, blue-collar workforce, are now in disrepair.
Today, the local economy is in limbo, suffering from the forces of globalization, the opioid epidemic – and now the coronavirus. More than 130 people in Trumbull County have died from COVID-19, or about 68 per 100,000 residents.
The August unemployment rate was 11.4%, up from 6.3% in the same month last year. Strict social distancing guidelines from Republican Governor Mike DeWine have limited customers in the county’s stores, restaurants and hotels.
A former light-bulb plant on the outskirts of Warren, the Trumbull County seat, sits vacant and derelict, its hundreds of rectangular glass windows cracked and shattered by passers-by hurling rocks at the building.
TRUMP ‘TOTALLY BOMBED’
Locals in these communities debate who’s to blame for the pandemic. Few give Trump a free pass, but his failures are not as damning to some as to others.
In Cortland’s Iron House bar, a crowded watering hole filled with Trump and Biden supporters alike – few of them wearing masks – furniture salesman Bill Bevec said the president lost his vote when he understated the deadly nature of the virus last winter. In taped conversations with journalist Bob Woodward released last month, Trump acknowledged that he had played down the danger despite having evidence to the contrary in order not to panic the American public.
“Don’t you think we had a right to know how bad the disease was?” said Bevec, 66, who voted for the president in 2016. “Four years ago, I was Trump’s biggest cheerleader. But I think he totally bombed on coronavirus.”
Trump has repeatedly defended his handling of the crisis. Courtney Parella, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary, said the president has faced the pandemic “head on.” She cited his restrictions on travel from China, and claimed the administration produced a COVID-19 vaccine “in record time,” though no vaccine has yet been approved for use in the United States.
“President Trump is continuing to fight to save American lives, and he will not stop until we’ve beaten the coronavirus and Americans feel safe again,” Parella said in a statement.
The Biden campaign has its eye on older voters like Bevec who polls show are frightened of the virus, but who either voted for Trump or sat out in 2016, campaign officials told Reuters. Trump won the 55-plus age group by 13 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls.
Biden appears to have made major inroads among older voters. The two candidates now split American voters aged 55 years and older almost evenly: 47% say they will vote for Biden, while 46% back Trump, according to Reuters/Ipsos national surveys in September and October. [nL1N2GZ05X]
American Bridge 21st Century, a Super PAC that supports Democratic candidates, has spent $40 million on ads in swing districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, specifically targeting white, working-class voters and seniors who supported Trump in 2016.
For some former Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, though, Trump’s missteps on coronavirus are not proving a turn-off.
Roshaun Kerdzaliev, who twice voted for Obama before flipping to Trump in 2016, manages Jaid’s Lounge, his family’s sports bar in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania. Kerdzaliev, standing alongside rows of taped-off barstools, said sales have fallen more than a third thanks to the pandemic.
He said Trump could have done more to prepare the country for COVID-19. But now that the damage is done, he said, Trump is the better leader to fix it.
“If I want someone who I think is actually going to rebuild the economy after all this, that’s Trump,” said Kerdzaliev, 40.
Shonna Bland, owner of Cortland’s Top Notch Diner, has plastered a 20-foot “TRUMP” banner on the side of her building and taped a not-so-subtle note to patrons on the door: “We will NOT force any mask/facial coverings at our establishment!!!!!!”
Bland, 45, said she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, then defected to Trump in 2016. She plans to vote for him again.
“People with pre-existing conditions maybe should stay home, but the rest of us should be free to go about our lives, and Trump gets that,” Bland said.
Trump loyalists like Bland and Kerdzaliev mean battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are still within Trump’s reach.
Still, by some measures, the pandemic has made the election Biden’s to lose. In northeast Ohio, Wojciak, the disgruntled Republican, said she now plans to vote for Democrats for the rest of her life. She’s encouraging her teenage son Max Matlack to vote Democratic, too.
Matlack, 18, has been avoiding most public spaces since the spring out of fear that his asthma puts him at risk for serious illness if he contracts the coronavirus. He cast his vote for Biden on Oct. 12 in a former bank that the Trumbull County Board of Elections has turned into a socially distanced polling place.
“He’s better than what we have now,” Matlack said.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Trumbull County, Ohio, Nick Brown in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, and Jason Lange in Washington. Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton and Brian Snyder. Editing by Ross Colvin and Marla Dickerson)