'I just couldn't be silent': How American women decided the 2020 presidential race

Mica Rosenberg, Gabriella Borter, P.J. Huffstutter, Mimi Dwyer and Chris Kahn

By Mica Rosenberg, Gabriella Borter, P.J. Huffstutter, Mimi Dwyer and Chris Kahn

ARCHBALD, Pa (Reuters) - Marygrace Vadala's 82-year-old mother had been a fan of President Donald Trump since his days hosting the reality TV show "The Apprentice." She enthusiastically voted for him in 2016.

But in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, as the two watched daily White House briefings, Vadala's mom - Grace Webber - voiced her first doubts.

"Why isn't he listening to the medical experts?" Vadala, a 48-year-old home care nurse, recalled Webber asking.

Weeks later, Webber landed in the hospital with a gastrointestinal bleed. She soon contracted the coronavirus, spending nearly a month on a ventilator. In May, Vadala, a devout Catholic, said goodbye to Webber over FaceTime, clutching her mother's rosary beads.

Vadala, who lives in a suburb of Scranton, Pennsylvania, had been a Republican all her life. But she concluded Trump lacked the "integrity and trustworthiness and responsibility" she was raised to value, and she wanted him out. She became a prominent booster of Trump's Democratic rival, even agreeing to appear in an online ad for former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign.

"I just couldn't be silent on this one," she said. "I let my mom's voice be heard."

Women appear to have been crucial in delivering the U.S. presidency to Biden. They were at the forefront of the highest U.S. voter turnout in at least a century, casting ballots at higher rates than men. And more than half of female voters - 56% - chose the former vice president compared to 48% of men, according to exit polls from the Edison Research firm.

Media outlets called the race for Biden on Saturday after he pulled ahead decisively in Pennsylvania.

It wasn't just women who carried Biden: Trump lost ground among male voters in 2020 compared to 2016. But key to Biden's success were his gains among white college-educated women in battleground states - like Vadala - who turned out in higher numbers than for Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton four years ago.

(For a graphic on results, see https://t.co/dk8Akg6XxG?amp=1)

African-American women, and to a lesser degree, Latinas, supported Biden's bid for the White House over Trump by wide majorities nationally, and more so than African-American and Latino men.

Trump has not conceded the race, even as Biden's lead in the vote tally rises. Recounts appear likely in states where the margin is narrow, but Trump would need to overturn the results in at least three states to prevail. Trump's court battles, too, are widely seen as unlikely to change the outcome.

Trump's difficulties in appealing to women voters long predate this election and the pandemic. Accusations of sexual harassment and assault - which he vehemently denies - have dogged him for years. The day after Trump's 2017 inauguration, hundreds of thousands of people protested his election in a Women's March in Washington D.C. and other cities around the country.

Still, Trump held strong with one female demographic across both elections: white women without college degrees, including some of Vadala's relatives in Pennsylvania.

To capture a variety of opinions in the 2020 race, Reuters spoke to 42 women in 12 states - Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska and Indiana - where voters swung for and against Trump.

Some once-stalwart Republicans told Reuters they had, for the first time, crossed party lines to vote for Biden. Some were young, first-time voters, selecting Biden only because they saw the alternative as far worse. Others, whether Republican or Democrat, said they had never liked or voted for Trump.

Among Trump supporters, some women were enthusiastic fans whose votes and organizing on his behalf helped him outperform expectations in several states.

Regardless of their differences, many women threw themselves into political activism for the first time during this presidential campaign.

Biden backers said in interviews that they were motivated by back-to-back crises of the past year including the coronavirus pandemic, economic turmoil and widespread protests against racism and police brutality.

Paula McCabe, 44, of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who lost her job at a casino equipment manufacturer during the pandemic, said she was more motivated than ever to vote this year.

"I've never been through an election that literally meant the entire country was going to crash and burn or finally thrive," said McCabe, who voted for Biden. "This to me is probably the most important vote I've ever been alive for."

SHADOW OF THE VIRUS

Women in the United States have in many ways borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. They have left the labor force at starkly higher rates than men, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, as they juggle homeschooling duties and childcare. Those able to stay employed are more often working frontline jobs, especially in medicine or social services, according to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Reuters polling before the election showed COVID-19, the disease that has killed more than 236,000 Americans this year, was the dominant issue for all voters - but more so for women. The Edison voter exit poll said 52% of women voters said that Biden would be better at dealing with the virus compared with 44% who thought the same of Trump.

But views on how much the coronavirus mattered to their vote were starkly divided along political lines - 24% of Biden voters said it was the issue that mattered most to them compared to 5% of Trump supporters.

Ellen Peters, an 80-year-old great grandmother in the small town of Rossville, Indiana, said she knew she was at higher risk for COVID-19. She mailed in her ballot early for Trump - who won the state handily - because she liked his focus on getting the economy going again.

"I'm worried, in that I hate being sick and I would hate what it would do to my family," said Peters, who did not graduate from college and retired this year from her family's bookkeeping company. "But I'm old. I could go to sleep tonight, and never wake up, too."

MAKING HISTORY

The fear of COVID-19 was ever-present for Denise Callaway in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after she lost several friends to the disease. But her primary motivation for voting was different: the chance to elect Kamala Harris as the first female, and African-American, vice president.

Callaway, 64, said she cried when Biden announced Harris as his running mate. Looking at a portrait in her living room of her great-great grandmother, a striking figure with piercing eyes and high cheekbones, Callaway remarked that she had likely been enslaved. Callaway felt she had to help in this historic election, she said - for her ancestor, for herself and for her daughters.

Callaway, a retired public relations executive and consultant, connected with the Biden campaign in Wisconsin through friends at her Black sorority. She began canvassing by phone and participated in weekly Zoom prayer circles with other volunteers.

Black women, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic and at higher rates than Black men, were never big Trump supporters. But they grew increasingly critical of the president this year, Reuters polling showed. According to the Edison data, 91% of Black women supported Biden, 11 percentage points more than Black men.

Racial justice issues were important to voters overall. More than half of all voters, and 87% of Biden voters, said they had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. These activists helped launch national protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minnesota.

Callaway and her husband raised their son and two daughters - now adults - in Milwaukee County, one of the few that went for Clinton in 2016 when Trump won Wisconsin by under 23,000 votes, in part by citing decades of lost manufacturing jobs.

Callaway, the daughter of an auto executive, remembers Biden's efforts to stabilize the auto industry in 2009 during the Obama administration, and says Trump has broken promises to bring manufacturing jobs to Rust Belt states.

This year, Biden flipped Wisconsin back by almost as narrow a margin as Trump won it in 2016, unless a recount changes the result, which rarely happens in U.S. elections.

After days of anxiously watching the votes trickle in, when the election was called in Biden's favor on Saturday, Callaway wrote a one-line email: "Worth. The. Wait!!!"

HER FIRST VOTE

In Arizona, young Latina voters like Yazmin Sagastume, 19, helped Biden pull into the lead, although votes were still being counted on Saturday. If Biden wins, he would be the first Democratic presidential candidate elected in the state since 1996.

Sagastume spent the day before Tuesday's election dropping voter guides on more than 100 doorsteps in Phoenix with two friends. Their votes for Biden were the first they had ever cast for president.

Nationally, Biden overwhelmingly won the support of young people as a whole, gaining the votes of 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds.

Sagastume grew up in Phoenix, the youngest of five children born to a mother from Mexico and a father from Guatemala. Now in college, she became politically active while in high school.

Sagastume said she is not a big Biden fan. She supported the progressive Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and relates much more to 31-year-old New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than a septuagenarian white male.

Nevertheless, for months she made calls to young Hispanic voters encouraging them to vote.

"We're just trying to get Trump out," she said. "That's the only goal."

To her dismay, she recently learned two older brothers supported Trump. And in some parts of the country, Trump did better than expected among Latino voters, a diverse population that includes many religious and political conservatives.

Trump won 45% of votes from Hispanic women in Florida - up 11 points from 2016 - where many voters of Cuban and Venezuelan heritage appreciated the president's stance against socialist or communist governments.

In states along the U.S.-Mexico border, where Trump has implemented some of his strictest immigration policies, his support grew. In Texas and Arizona, Trump won 38% and 32% of Hispanic women respectively, substantially more than four years ago.

Teresa Mendoza, 48, a property manager in Mesa, Arizona, outside Phoenix, is the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico. But she said she was not turned off by Trump's immigration stance. More security is needed at the border, she said, because it is more dangerous – with more drug trafficking and human smuggling – than when her parents migrated in the 1970s, she said.

In addition, she said, Trump's policies, such as cutting taxes and regulations, directly improved her family's finances, while Obama's Affordable Care Act raised the cost of her private health insurance.

Mendoza said she got a tax refund under Trump, after years of paying large tax bills. Trump's relaxation of many environmental rules also made it easier for her husband, who runs a flooring business, to obtain many of the chemicals he needs, she said.

After the election was called for Biden, Mendoza said she would accept the results if there was an "audit" of the votes, citing unverified reports she had seen on the internet about glitches in voting machines and irregularities at some polling sites.

'KICKED IN THE TEETH'

As the campaign progressed, personal connections frayed in a deeply divided country.

A fifth of American voters said they stopped talking to a family member or lost a friend because of the election, according to a Reuters/Ipsos Election Day poll.

Denise Auton, a 46-year-old retired social worker who lives outside Raleigh, North Carolina, said her husband revealed on their anniversary that he had voted for Trump.

"It was like I got kicked in the teeth," she said, tearing up. Auton lives on a 43-acre farm in Middlesex, surrounded by cotton fields. Sitting on the front porch, she described how she and her 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, are at odds with her husband, Jeff, and their son, Bryce. "My son is 15, and of course he listens to his father. He thinks it's funny when Trump says all this off-the-cuff stuff but really (Trump) is just a bully."

Having worked with disabled people, she was upset after overhearing her husband's family – also Trump supporters – make fun of Biden's stutter.

A Baptist, she says she found Trump's views and treatment toward women "degrading." On her kitchen counter is a pink floral-bound Bible on top of a sheet of Biden-Harris stickers. On the back of her SUV one sticker says "STD- Stop The Donald, don't let the infection spread."

But on Facebook she treads more carefully. Most people in her circle are Trump supporters.

Auton was raised in a Republican household but diverged from her roots when she attended a liberal arts college. She campaigned for Obama.

But never before has she been as passionate about politics. She had her Trump-supporting husband drive her around the county to put out Biden-Harris signs and, with her daughter, wrote postcards to encourage people to vote.

As of Saturday, Trump led in North Carolina, but the race still was too close to call in the state.

More than half of college-educated white women in North Carolina, like Auton, voted for Biden, while their support for Trump dropped 8 percentage points compared to 2016.

"The intensity is just so strong with this election," she said. "It just feels like there's a whole lot more at stake."

FALTERING AMONG FARMERS

Even among rural women, one of Trump's strongest bases of support in 2016, the president saw his margins shrink.

Nationally Trump won 54% of the U.S. rural vote, according to Edison exit polling, 7 points less than in 2016. Slightly more than half of rural women supported Biden this year.

One was Rebecca Seidel, 37, who runs a small, sustainable dairy farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania, with her husband.

For most of her life, her views hewed closely to her Republican father's. But after Trump was elected in 2016, Seidel left the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat, partly because of what she saw as rising racism and Trump's protectionist trade policies.

In the 2020 campaign, Seidel's concerns kicked into high gear when she and her entire family contracted COVID-19. Her mom was hospitalized for four days and Seidel lost her sense of smell and taste, crimping her plans to open a small cheese-making business, she said.

At a local farm supply store recently, she noticed a group of men chatting as they bagged up animal feed. None wore masks - a sign to her that some in her community weren't taking the pandemic seriously enough.

"It's become a political statement," Seidel said. "Some people believe if you wear a mask, you're not for Trump."

'NOT TRUMP'

Trump has long commanded a strong following among white evangelical Christian voters - and 76% of them voted for him this time around, according to Edison. But that is 4 percentage points less than in 2016.

He lost Hyla Winters' vote.

Winters, 71, a devout evangelical and regular attendee of a Las Vegas megachurch, voted for Trump in 2016. But over time, she became disheartened by his attacks on perceived enemies.

"His behavior is appalling," said Winters, a retired college administrator. "It's embarrassing."

While she has not embraced the entire Democratic platform, she saw Biden as a "decent individual."

She had been somewhat supportive of Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border but was horrified by his "zero tolerance" policy in which young migrant children were forcibly separated from parents.

She went online to find ways to get more involved politically, eventually finding a YouTube video on how to create a blog. In February, she started one, naming it nottrump.net.

As the protests against police brutality broke out, she reached out to a Black friend to learn more about what it meant to have "white privilege."

"She gave me some homework," Winters said, including some books and online resources.

During early voting, she volunteered for seven days at a voting site to answer questions and direct people to open booths. On the last day, a line snaked through the parking lot even before the polls opened. Winters was amazed at the turnout.

"I am ashamed to admit, this is a shift for me," said Winters of her political involvement. "I'm 71 years old, and this is the first time I have gotten this engaged in a presidential election."

She got some bad news Wednesday, however: She tested positive for COVID-19.

"The only place that I was around people that I don't know was at early voting," she recalled telling a health department contact tracer. She had been wearing a mask under an outdoor tent, but she said some voters had no face coverings.

Her husband, a Trump supporter, also tested positive. While neither have serious symptoms, they now have to quarantine together. Maybe they will have more time to resolve some of their political differences, Winters said.

She hadn't worried much about the virus when she volunteered. But even if she had, she said, "I would have done it anyway. It was too important to me not to."

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Chris Kahn in New York; Gabriella Borter in Archbald and Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, and Middlesex, North Carolina; P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago and Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Mimi Dwyer in Phoenix, Arizona. Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Julie Marquis)