LAKEVILLE, MINN. – Erika Weber, a 39-year-old mother of four from Lakeville, was pretty sure that come November she was going to vote once again for President Donald Trump. In line with her conservative lean, she overlooked the president’s blustering style and overactive Twitter feed. As 2020 opened, she was generally pleased with his job performance.
Now she’s not so sure.
Twin Cities Suburbs
The Midwest remakes American politics
The coronavirus pandemic put a damper on a once-booming U.S. economy. More recently, George Floyd’s death left Americans of all kinds reckoning anew with issues of race. Weber was disappointed in Trump’s response, including a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore casting the protests surrounding Floyd’s killing as an assault on America’s culture and heritage.
“People were doing well,” Weber said, watching two of her sons splash in Lake Marion in Dakota County. “Now, I will say it’s harder for me. I feel like it’s a way more stressful election this time than any one I’ve voted in before.”
With four months until Election Day, suburban women like Weber find themselves once again a pivotal demographic in the battle between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. They are a focus of the campaigns in key Midwestern battleground states that helped Trump win in 2016, and which he needs to hold if he hopes to win re-election in 2020.
That includes Minnesota, a state that Trump narrowly lost in 2016, and one that he has personally vowed to flip in 2020. But across the state, as well as the nation, Trump appears to be facing a stiff headwinds in the suburbs, particularly among women.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in May found 63% of women statewide disapproved of Trump’s performance as president. That came two months into the pandemic that upended the economy and daily life. It was an 8% increase in Trump’s disapproval among Minnesota women in a February poll. The rise in disapproval was even bigger in the Twin Cities suburbs.
National polls also have shown Trump slipping with women, including white working-class women, among his most loyal supporters. While Hillary Clinton carried female voters in 2016, Trump won the votes of 53% of white women nationwide. Exit polls showed him with a 27-point edge among women without college degrees. But that margin shrank to a single-digit lead in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in late May. Support among college-educated women also has dropped, a June New York Times poll showed.
In 2018, female voters were key in delivering big suburban wins to Democrats in congressional races, including in Minnesota. Two of the biggest prizes were in races around the Twin Cities, where women were instrumental in helping Democratic U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips unseat GOP incumbents in districts long held by Republicans.
This year, those same voters are poised to swing not just the presidency but to help decide the political alignment in both Congress and the Minnesota Legislature. If Trump’s support continues to erode among suburban women, it could become increasingly difficult for Republicans to tip the state relying mainly on rural districts that have been their most reliable source of votes.
Presidential politics more than ever is a turnout game. Black voters, senior citizens, white men without college degrees, young evangelicals, women in the suburbs: All these groups can tip the scales one way or another. But given high turnout rates among female voters, especially well-educated women, the 2020 election has become a test for Trump’s Republican Party as it tries to hold onto voters who have increasingly been moving toward Democrats.
“Democrats need the gender gap to be big and Republicans want to narrow the gender gap,” said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political scientist. “Suburban women is one of those routes.”
Women across the seven-county Twin Cities area have always brought a multitude of experiences and views to the voting booth. Voting trends vary by community, race, marital status and education. Interviews with more than two dozen suburban women, political operatives and strategists reflect that diversity, revealing a range of concerns that weigh on this must-win slice of the electorate. But this year, Trump’s singular rhetoric and unconventional approach to the presidency appear to be driving views across the political spectrum.
“He doesn’t think before he speaks,” lamented Robin Schaeppi, a 58-year-old day care provider from the east metro who backs Biden. “He’s creating a divide in the country that I’ve never, ever seen in my whole adult life.”
Darlynn Johnson shares those concerns. She voted for Trump in 2016. The 44-year-old from Coon Rapids found him “strong minded” and liked that he brought a business background to the role. But she’s undecided this year. Johnson, like Weber, also has reservations about Biden.
“I thought it would be a lot different,” Johnson said of Trump, as she waited to order corn dogs and curds at a fair stand in Anoka. “The negativity that he brings, the tone in his voice. Nobody’s opinion matters, he bashes them.”
Sue Pickens also sees a fractured nation. But the retired school bus driver from Apple Valley doesn’t think Trump is to blame. She got involved in GOP politics after 2016, saying she was “appalled at the way that he was so vilified” by critics.
“It pushed me to the point where I have to do something,” she said. “I want to know in my heart that I did what I could.”
Pickens, a fan of Trump’s hard line on immigration and approach to trade, thinks voters should focus on actions not words. “He’s getting things done,” she said. “So in the end, who gives a rip what he put on Twitter?”
Like Pickens, Mika Pieper-White considers herself an independent. The 24-year-old engineer from Oakdale says she’s fiscally conservative but counts women’s and LGBT rights among her top issues. She gives Trump kudos for being a “great marketer,” but thinks he’s sold the country a false bill of goods.
After voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016, Pieper-White is pivoting to Biden, whom she sees as a more strategic choice. “I should have felt it last election,” she said as she watched her dog Nala play at a Woodbury park. “But I don’t think anybody in my circle realized how much of a realistic chance Trump had.”
Many campaigns believe the way to win over suburban women — particularly white moms seen as swing voters — is through “kitchen table issues” that affect their families’ lives. The economy, education and public safety loom large. Since 2016, gun laws, health care and abortion rights have newly re-energized women, especially on the political left.
But this year, the far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic appears paramount.
A top concern for many moms, including Weber, is whether school classrooms reopen this fall and, if they do, what safety precautions are in place. Trump is pressing for schools to open, a prospect that worries many educators and parents.
At the same time, Pickens worries that business and community shutdowns enforced by state and local leaders ended up “destroying more lives” than they saved.
Karla Litch of Plymouth wants to see the president do more to control the virus spread. Her job as a flight attendant has been on hold. “We haven’t even hit the iceberg yet,” the 62-year-old said. “We don’t have the leadership to really take care of what’s going on.”
Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed have brought issues of racism and police brutality to the forefront of the presidential race. A number of Black women filed to run for the Legislature in suburban districts, including in Maple Grove and Woodbury. For them and many others, racial equity is a top priority.
GOP operatives, meanwhile, believe the civil unrest and calls to “defund” police will help them win back female suburban voters in November. Republican candidates already are making law and order a central theme. The issue played prominently in a recent Zoom meetup for roughly 80 female Trump supporters.
“Suburban women are around Minneapolis looking in and saying, ‘Wow, I’m really glad I’m not living there right now. I’m glad I’m in the suburbs’ and ‘Lets keep the suburbs safe,’ ” said Kathy Tingelstad, a GOP activist from Andover who represented Anoka and Coon Rapid counties in the Legislature.
But calls for racial justice are mobilizing women on the other side of the political divide as well. Across the suburbs, women are participating in Black Lives Matter protests, using Facebook to lobby for policy changes and participating in book clubs focused on structural racism.
“People assume [our] focus is very limited and directly on our families and making sure we are secure in our homes. I think that’s underestimating the size of our hearts and the focus that we have,” said Anita Smithson, a progressive activist from Bloomington. “The moms and the suburban women I know care about everyone’s kitchen table issues, not just their own.”
Given the stakes, both sides are aiming to shore up support from suburban women in the next four months.
“We can’t take them for granted,” said Mikki Murray, a GOP official focused on the east metro. “With the swing and change that took place with the last election, clearly we’d be foolish not to have some sort of targeted energy.”
The Trump campaign, which hired a women’s outreach coordinator here, is holding female-focused events in person and online. Amy Stretcher Burkes, 33, has attended several. The stay-at-home mom of two thinks polls fail to capture support for the president and the pre-pandemic economy.
“The silent majority is alive and well,” she said. “I truly believe in it.”
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to repeat the so-called “pink wave” of electoral participation and activism of 2018.
Diana Jones, a warehouse manager from Woodbury, was part of a surge of political engagement that year. Jones, who is Hispanic, said Trump’s family separation policy for refugees motivated her to join her college-age daughter as a volunteer for Democrats. She plans to do even more this year. “She said, ‘Mom, you have to have a voice as well,’ ” she recalled. “Everybody counts.”