With four months to go until a divided America decides the presidential race, voters in the heartland are focused on an economy in trouble, the unending coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial injustice.

That triad of concerns emerged as top of the mind issues in CNHI’s periodic “Pulse of the Voters” project that features conversations with people from that broad north-south swath of the country that played a pivotal role in electing Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.

Voter sentiment during April, May and June ranged from continued hard loyalty to Trump in traditional red states to some shifting of support to Democrat Joe Biden in battleground Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Iowa.

CNHI newspapers have recorded voter moods in Rust Belt, Midwest and Southern states since early in Trump’s term. They’ve talked to local people about their concerns, how they feel about the direction of the country, and what issues will matter most when they cast their ballots on Nov. 3.

Russian election interference, impeachment, health care, immigration, gun laws, abortion, tariffs and other contentious issues framed the conversation until this year.

Now, in general, voters who embrace Trump point to his economic accomplishments prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Those who dislike the president criticize his handling of the pandemic and the nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Interviews also turned up voters who are not comfortable with either Trump or former Vice President Biden.

“I don’t have a high opinion of either one of them,” said Lacey Vilandry, 25, of Princeton, West Virginia. “They don’t really have the best track record for people of color.” She described as “dreadful” Trump’s response to protests for police reform.

Kathryn King, 19, who will vote for the first time, feels similarly. As a Black woman, she actively participated in the Black Lives Matter protests in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But she’s not all that excited about Biden, citing concern with a former Senate staffer’s accusation he sexually assaulted her 30 years ago.

“It’s important that we have a leader who is on the right side of history,” said King.

Not sold on Biden

Despite state polls showing native son Biden with a comfortable lead among registered voters in Pennsylvania, Bonnie Feaster of Sunbury isn’t buying the findings with more than 120 days left in the campaign.

She gets upset when people blame Trump for the spread of coronavirus in the United States, saying the rebuke results from public panic. She said the H1N1 virus pandemic in 2009 was similar in nature and no frenzy of fear occurred then.

It is mass hysteria now,” said Feaster. “Why? Because they (Democrats) are trying to get Trump out of office and it’s not going to work.”

Other voters found the president’s management of the COVID-19 virus problematic. State polls in Michigan, Ohio and Iowa also show Trump losing ground to Biden, mainly because of the president’s mixed messages on the virus and his response to the growing outcry for criminal justice reform. All three states went for Trump in 2016.

Pollsters agree it is too early to count on Biden holding a big lead in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Both campaigns are impeded by the pandemic, and undecided voters normally don’t settle on a candidate until after Labor Day, when they begin to pay closer attention to policies and promises.

Law enforcement

Donald Bailey of Traverse City, Michigan said he’s uneasy about the long-term effects of proposals to defund police departments as a remedy for “bad apple” cops. He spent 31 years with the Michigan State Police before retiring three years ago, and fears gutting police budgets will deter “good apples” from becoming officers.

A better answer, he added, is improving hiring and training processes, cautioning even that won’t totally eliminate misconduct.

“Every law enforcement agency is made up of human beings, and there are going to be some people who do the wrong thing,” said Bailey. “You’re never going to get away from that.”

Charles Comber, 32, is a transgender voter and owner of a tattoo studio in Traverse City. He doesn’t belong to a political party but expects to support Biden based on issues of equality and civil rights.

“I just got my driver’s license the other day,” said Comber. “I have been Charlie for years and yet they said I have an invalid license. The unemployment office couldn’t identify me. It’s everyday things like that.”

In Iowa, Joel Butz paused his lunch at a picnic table beside the Mississippi River to inform the Clinton Herald he’s a registered Democrat but votes independently in major elections.

He didn’t say who he voted for in 2016 when Iowa went big for Trump. He did express displeasure with the president’s response to the virus pandemic, saying the country was “very poorly prepared” to deal with it at the outset. He also objects to police “using deadly force.”

In neighboring Minnesota, Shannon Helget of New Ulm speaks candidly about her dislike of Trump, describing his presidency as a “train wreck.” Even so, she added, Biden and the Democrats need to press their case for change throughout the heartland if they expect to win.

Trump’s 2016 election victory, she said, “revealed what percentage of the population is unhappy. That’s important. It is like the underbelly of America. That has to be addressed.”

Kentucky went big for Trump

Few states had more unhappy residents than Kentucky in 2016. Trump won more than 62 percent of the vote, much of it from rural communities. Will it be different in 2020?

Not if Jimmy Paul in Greenup County along the Ohio River in northeast Kentucky is representative of rural voters. He said he’s a registered Democrat and also a Trump fan through thick and thin.

“There’s no way I’m voting for Biden,” said Paul. “Trump is good” for the country.

Sheila Lambert also resides in rural Kentucky. A resident of Catlettsburg (population 1,856) she’s voting for Biden because she believes he can best deal with the coronavirus and tensions over race relations. As for Trump, “he was given a chance. Now give somebody else a chance.”

Oklahoma hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson 56 years ago. And chances are slim to none that Biden can upend Trump, who won more than 65 percent of the state’s vote in 2016.

But Ken Siedel, 78, of Claremore, a suburb of Tulsa, said he’s voting against Trump in November. He fears Oklahomans will cast their ballots on emotions and propaganda instead of evidence-based facts.

“People are being duped into a false narrative,” said Siedel, retired chief executive officer of Claremore’s hospital. “As a result, they’re going to continue to play out that false narrative and vote it.”

Levi Peckenpaugh, 21, of Stillwater, Oklahoma, said he voted for Trump in 2016 but is switching to Biden in November. He questioned Trump’s “character, his intelligence” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests.

“It’s very frustrating to see because the guy who should be leading the country just comes off like a jerk the majority of the time -- and not as a president should,” he said.

Michael Cummings, a resident of Tahlequah in rural eastern Oklahoma, said the pandemic and racial divisions have overshadowed other campaign issues but they have not shaken the faith of Trump supporters.

The 53-year-old businessman, who isn’t registered with either party, said he will vote for Trump again because the Democrats are not offering a better alternative. “Biden’s been around for years, with nothing getting fixed,” said Cummings. “Plus, I honestly think he has the start of dementia.”

Indiana dissenters

Indiana is another Trump stronghold with dissenters.

Lauryn Hill said she lost her grandmother to COVID-19 in April and believes she might still be alive if the Trump administration had acted quicker to combat the virus. “I just feel like there’s a bunch of people that lost their lives that didn’t need to,” said Hill, 20, of Anderson, Indiana.

Marti Coffey, 28, a Black resident of New Albany in southern Indiana, said she votes for Democratic candidates and will cast a ballot for Biden even though she’s not especially enthusiastic about him.

She strongly opposes Trump’s re-election, citing his remarks about minorities and his administration’s efforts to decrease benefits, including food stamps, to low income families.

“His rhetoric has contributed to what’s happening right now,” said Coffey. “On an international level, we’re not respected as we used to be, and it’s due to (Trump’s) rhetoric.”

That’s not the view of Joan Caldwell, who leaves no doubt she’s a Trump loyalist. The sign in her front yard in Terre Haute, Indiana, urges voters to “Say No to Socialism,” which the president accuses the Democrats of advocating.

A retired educator, Caldwell said prior to the 2016 election she had doubts about sexist statements attributed to candidate Trump. But now, she has no misgivings based on his performance in office. And that includes responding “intelligently and appropriately” to the virus pandemic.

Caldwell endorsed Trump’s dismissive remarks about protest efforts to defund the police. She said the idea is “nonsense. Beyond ridiculous. Are you going to send a social worker out in the middle of the night to a domestic disturbance or to a meth lab?”

Possible changes in the South

In the south, Trump remains popular, though not without critics. Democrat strategists believe Biden and congressional candidates could break through in Texas and Georgia if Black and Hispanic voters turn out in record numbers.

They can count on D’ Angelo Colter, a 20-year-old Black resident of Grapeland, Texas, voting in his first presidential election. As a student of politics, he eschews bitter partisanship by both major parties but expects to vote for Biden because he’s “trying to better himself and the economy.”

Colter reacted viscerally to George Floyd’s death. It elevated law enforcement to his top issue for the fall election. “I am saddened and angered that a police force that is supposed to protect us is actually harming us,” said Colter. “And some people are still making every excuse to cover the police.”

Rev. Billy Wright is pastor of the Emmanuel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cleburne, Texas. In September of 1967, he was one of four Black students to integrate Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. Now 72, he believes too many police officers treat Black people as criminals for no other reason than the color of their skin.

“I’m a very firm believer that as a community and as police officers we should come together, sit down and have a conversation about what is taking place today,” he said.

Wright supports Biden and Democratic congressional candidates, urging them to pursue racial unity. To gain control of the Senate, Democrats need to net four seats in November. Or three if they win the White House as the vice president can break a tie vote.

Republicans, however, are banking on Trump’s pre-pandemic economic record as the key to bringing back good times and his re-election. The disruption caused by the virus, they argue, can only be fixed by the president’s job-creation policies.

The contrast between Donald Trump and Joseph Biden on the economy “is night and day,” said 80-year-old Dolores Fort of Smoke Rise, Alabama.

“You’re either going to go ahead and vote for Trump and we’re going to continue with our economic recovery,” she said. “Or you can put Joe Biden in there and put the Democrats back in power, and I predict that by the end of that first four years, there will no longer be a United States of America.”

Tim and Donna Ben of Philadelphia, Mississippi, don’t think the country’s existence is at stake. They are amicably divided over who should be the president. Donna believes Trump deserves four more years, but husband Tim says Trump is a “poor fit” for the office.

“I say, ‘Yes,’ but he says, ‘No,’” said Donna. “But hey, we still love each other.”

Bill Ketter is the senior vice president of news for CNHI. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.

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