ERIE, Pa. — Mark Graham, a real-estate appraiser in this faded manufacturing hub, sat with friends at a gym named FitnessU on the morning after the Democratic debate in mid-September. He had voted for Barack Obama, but in 2016 he took a gamble on Donald Trump. Although he called the president’s conduct in office “a joke,” he was unwilling to commit to voting Democratic in 2020, unconvinced by the 10 party hopefuls the night before.
Jump ahead to October and Democrats in Congress are investigating evidence of Trump’s possible abuse of power. Graham has had an electoral conversion.
“Things have changed in the last couple weeks: More stupidity has come out,” Graham, 69, said last week. He hopes Democrats nominate former Vice President Joe Biden, but he is not particular. “I’d vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is at this point,” he said. “If Mr. Trump gets into another four years, where he’s a lame duck, it’s going to be like adding gasoline to the fire.”
Heading into 2020, there is intense focus among campaign strategists on the weakest element of the Trump coalition: the millions of voters who disapproved of both major candidates in 2016 but took a chance on Trump. Whether an impeachment inquiry moves Obama-Trump voters like Graham off the fence, one way or the other, is a major narrative arc in the 2020 script that is rapidly unfolding and updating.
Erie County in western Pennsylvania holds a wealth of these conflicted voters. That much was clear in interviews conducted in the days after the 2016 election, and it’s clear now. Trump won an upset national victory by carrying places just like Erie County, long a blue-collar Democratic stronghold; he won here thanks to a 17-point swing from Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. The area’s flip from blue to red was a microcosm of how Trump pulled off narrow victories in this state as well as in Michigan and Wisconsin.
In interviews in Erie last month, before the impeachment inquiry began, many of the Trump voters from 2016 were either supportive of the president or unpersuaded by the Democratic alternatives. But reached by phone after the inquiry was announced, some of these voters had changed their minds. Outright conversions like Graham’s, while still rare, were reflected in an uptick of support for impeachment by independent voters in recent national polls.
“I don’t know which way the impeachment issue is going to cause public opinion to move,” said Joseph Morris, a political scientist at Mercyhurst University in Erie, who was polling local voters when news of the impeachment inquiry broke.
“Undoubtedly a majority of voters that voted for Trump will vote for him again in 2020,” Morris said. “But I think the jury is still out when it comes to those independents or any Democrats who chose to vote for Trump in 2016.”
Two strong predictors of a president’s reelection odds — support for his handling of the economy and voters’ overall approval — are pulling in opposite directions in Morris’ latest survey of Erie County, which suggests a close election in this battleground county in a battleground state. Approval of Trump overall is dismal at 38%, but 52% approve of the way he’s handling the economy.
Obama-Trump voters like Graham totaled some 6.7 million people in 2016, according to the results of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large survey conducted before and after elections. Of the nearly 1 in 5 voters who disapproved of both major 2016 candidates, Trump won by a 17-point margin. Another large study of nearly 7,000 voters in January 2019 found that Obama-Trump voters were the only slice of the electorate whose approval of Trump has significantly eroded.
“Even small movement among these voters — who represented 5% of voters in 2016 — may prove significant heading into the 2020 presidential election,” wrote one of the election scholars behind the study.
Mark Miller, the third-generation owner of Miller Brothers’ lawn and garden supply store in Erie, is a longtime Republican who cast a grudging vote for Trump.
We met last month for breakfast at Dominick’s, the same 24-hour restaurant downtown where I interviewed him in 2016. Miller said at the time the likelihood he would vote Democratic in 2020 was “50-50.” And he was still “50-50” when we spoke this month. Among the Democratic candidates he could potentially support, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey impressed him as a happy warrior on the campaign trail. He liked Biden because he was not promising the moon.
“I gave the other guy a shot,” Miller said of the president. “I don’t like the way he talks to people. I don’t like what he’s doing internally with the Cabinet. I don’t think anybody feels comfortable that we have anything cohesive at the top right now.”
A small-business owner with about 20 employees, Miller, 55, calls himself “a really conservative family guy,” who sent four children to Catholic schools.
He was not ready in September to say he would vote Democratic and the impeachment inquiry has not changed his mind.
“Talking to people coming through the doors daily, there’s information overload and they’re not sure what to believe,” he said last week, speaking from his store after closing hours.
He said it was wrong for the president to ask a foreign country, Ukraine, to investigate a political rival, Biden. But he added, “I don’t know if that’s egregious enough to warrant full impeachment.” He continued, “I’d like to see everybody get back to work on the business of the country.”
Lyne Daniels, 52, an Obama-Trump voter in Erie, said congressional Democrats should be working with the president on issues like health care and immigration.
“All they’re doing is, get Trump, get Trump, get Trump,” she said of the impeachment inquiry.
Daniels, who works both as a municipal secretary and for a clothing store, knows exactly who she will vote for in 2020: Trump.
She said the president had fulfilled his promises to put “America First” by avoiding foreign wars and ending decades of what she called open borders.
Daniels said she voted for Obama twice because he faced Republicans she disliked and regarded as members of the establishment. She called Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee, “a traitor to this country,” adding, “I’ve done my own research.”
Even fans of Trump often say they wish he would lay off Twitter. Not Daniels, who called it a “brilliant” diversionary tactic. “He plays you, the press, like a fiddle, and you fall for it every time,” she said. “He gets everybody talking and it sucks up airtime for days. Meanwhile over in the corner, we’re working on this thing nobody knows about.”
Asked about Trump’s thousands of documented falsehoods in office, Daniels pushed back. “Based on whose sources?” she demanded. “Just because the news tells me that his claims are false is a little hypocritical because we had to listen about Russia, Russia, Russia for two years, and they were wrong. Who are they to say what’s coming out of his mouth is wrong?”
In the 2018 midterms, Democrats did well in the three Pennsylvania counties that Trump had flipped: Erie, Luzerne and Northampton. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, carried all three. Ron DiNicola, a Democrat running for Congress, won Erie County by 20 points, though he lost the race because rural counties in the district voted Republican.
“I feel like our country has been more divided than ever,’’ said Stephanie Johnson, 38, a substitute teacher and registered Libertarian in Erie County. “I see it just being a mom, being out and about, at the grocery story, after school. I feel like people are so angry nowadays.”
Johnson worries that a decline in attendance at her family’s church is related to the divisiveness of America under Trump, whom she has no interest in voting for in 2020.
“I feel like there are a lot of people who aren’t putting their full trust and faith in God, and are sort of scared and angry about what’s going on in the world,” she said. A president with no self-restraint on how he speaks about others has spread coarseness, Johnson said. “Like, it’s just gotten to the point where nobody has any compassion for each other.”
Still, Ryan Bizzarro, a Democratic state representative from Erie County, said, “If this economy holds on,” Trump “is going to be tough to beat.”
Republicans “have been able to hijack our narrative because we’re so focused on a lot of the social issues — which are important, but people are voting again with their wallets,” Bizzarro said last month.
Once a city reliant on heavy industry, Erie is moving past the stereotype of Rust Belt decrepitude. Its largest employer was once a General Electric plant making locomotives but is now Erie Insurance. Lost manufacturing jobs are being replaced by startups making computer and electronic parts.
Bizzarro, 33, is skeptical that Biden, the current front-runner, will end up as the nominee. If Democrats nominate one of his two closest current rivals, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Bizzarro sounded leery of their ability to carry Erie County without a surge of voters from his own generation.
Millennials, whose turnout continues to lag older voters, “damn well better show up for the election,” he said.