‘What did we all do?’: why women who voted for Trump could decide the 2020 election

Amanda Holpuch in New York
·7 min read

When Sandy Orth reads 2 Timothy 3 in the Bible, which advises good Christians to steer clear of “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, [the] boastful, proud, abusive”, the first person she is reminded of is the US president.

Orth, an evangelical Christian from the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but will be voting for his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in 2020.

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“As a lifelong Republican I was willing to give him a chance and was hoping he would be humbled by the position, but that didn’t happen,” Orth told the Guardian.

The 77-year-old could help fuel what is expected to be the largest gender gap in any presidential election in US history. White women in particular appear to be moving away from Trump, while men seem to be sticking by him.

Orth’s vote will also have an outsized importance because she is in a state which Trump flipped in 2016 after it twice elected Barack Obama. It was assumed Trump would carry Iowa again this time around, but recent polls have showed a much closer race than anticipated.

Trump is specifically struggling with Iowa’s women. In a CBS News/YouGov poll of 1,048 Iowa voters conducted on 6-9 October, Biden had an 11-percentage-point advantage among women compared with Trump. In a Quinnipiac University poll of 1,205 Iowa voters conducted on 1-5 October Biden had a 26-point advantage among women compared with Trump – one of the biggest differences found in any state.

The president, meanwhile, has responded to the polls by both bullying and begging suburban women to support him.

Nationally, CNN’s Harry Enten said Biden was up by 25 points among female voters based on an analysis last week of five live interview polls. That is the largest lead a candidate has ever had among women voters in the polling era.

In Pennsylvania on 13 October, Trump asked: “Suburban women, will you please like me?” On 17 October in Michigan, he implored: “I saved your suburbs – women – suburban women, you’re supposed to love Trump.” And the next day in Nevada, Trump begged: “Suburban women, please vote for me. I’m saving your house. I’m saving your community. I’m keeping your crime way down.”

These half-hearted pleas are about three years too late for voters like Becky, who lives in a suburb of Des Moines and asked for her last name not to be used because she was worried about being targeted for her opinions.

It didn’t take the 63-year-old long to regret her vote for Donald Trump, who she wanted out of office within weeks of him becoming president.

As a lifelong Republican I was willing to give him a chance and was hoping he would be humbled by the position, but that didn’t happen

Sandy Orth

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what did I do? What did we all do? What would’ve been so bad about Hillary?’” Becky said. “He’s so good with his lies. He made you believe she was hiding her emails, doing all these things she shouldn’t be doing.”

At this point, Becky can’t stand the president and laughed before calling him the antichrist.

“That’s how badly I feel about him,” she said. “If we don’t get him out, we’re in a load of trouble here.”

Becky, who is registered independent but usually votes Democrat, is not a huge Joe Biden fan either though she likes his vice-president nominee, Kamala Harris. A yard sign tucked away in her garage out of fear it will make her family the target of harassment or violence spells out her position for this election: “Anyone but Trump.”

“Five years ago, you wouldn’t be afraid to say who you support,” she said. “It didn’t mean that you could get hurt or have your family hurt, but the divisiveness that he’s created, it’s crazy.”

She has seen the divisiveness in her own family, where people have stopped speaking to each other because their support, or lack of, for Trump. Though one close female relative is also changing their vote from Trump to Biden.

For Orth, it didn’t take long for her to make her decision about 2020. She reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016, deciding he was narrowly preferable to his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

But Orth was soon upset with his behavior, which she said reminded her of a school bully. “It wasn’t just one thing that happened one day, it was kind of almost from the beginning that things weren’t looking good,” Orth said.

Her list of problems with the president has since grown to include his disregard for the country’s relationship with its allies and the high number of his associates who are convicted criminals.

A few months ago, she and a couple of friends tried to determine one good thing the president had done for the country – she still doesn’t have an answer.

Her friends who do support Trump point to his unprecedented number of conservative judicial appointments, which could have the longest and most far-reaching impacts on people’s daily lives of any of his policies. “The fact that he appoints conservative judges doesn’t give him a pass in my mind for all the negative things,” Orth said.

But Trump is not the only subject of Orth’s ire – she also feels betrayed by the Republican party she has supported for decades.

“I am very upset and angry at how they have enabled Donald Trump to be such a bad president,” Orth said. “I blame them for a lot of things that are happening in this country too.”

That’s another frustration she will be channeling at the ballot box. Orth plans to vote for the Democratic challenger in Iowa’s Senate race – one of the most closely contested Senate elections in the country in an election year that could see the chamber flip from red to blue.

The incumbent Republican senator Joni Ernst’s run for re-election in Iowa is now considered a bellwether to see if Democrats can take the Senate despite Trump’s unpopularity. In the final weeks before the election, Republicans fearful of polling in Biden’s favor are trying to master the balance between keeping Trump supporters close while reeling back in the moderates drifting away.

Ernst, the first woman Iowa sent to Congress, has largely stood by Trump through his first term and is in a closely contested race. Ernst polled one percentage point ahead of her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, in a New York Times/Siena College poll released on Wednesday. But in the month before, Ernst trailed Greenfield in every poll.

As Ernst’s predicament shows, no matter the result of the presidential election, Trump’s unpopularity presents a bigger question for the future of the Republican party.

Biotech consultant Leslie Dow usually votes Republican and travels in conservative circles but she is so frustrated with the party for enabling Trump that she is also now the Democratic precinct chair in LeClaire, a small town on the Mississippi River.

I want solutions that have a chance of doing something

Leslie Dow

Dow, 63, has always been engaged with specific issues, as a teenager fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would change the US constitution to ban discrimination on the basis of sex, and in support of Planned Parenthood. But it was the sexist treatment of Clinton in the 2016 election which galvanized her participation in electoral politics.

“I don’t think I ever felt so alone as when I watched her go through that stuff,” Dow said. “I lost friends over it because they thought I was just being silly.”

She doesn’t plan on sticking with the party, but is proud to support Biden.

“I want solutions that have a chance of doing something,” Dow said. “And I feel like Biden has those because he’s a moderate and I am a moderate.”

If the Democrats take the presidency and the Senate, Dow may remain involved with local party politics in the hopes of moderating some of their more liberal positions, but ultimately she hopes to be a part of rebuilding the Republican party.

“I don’t think that’s the Republican party any more,” Dow said. “It’s the party of Trump.”