Updated: October 18, 2020 12:10:13 pm
(Written by Lisa Lerer)
Kate Rabinovitch doesn’t call herself an activist.
A few weeks ago, the 29-year-old real estate agent wrote personalized messages to voters in her home state of Ohio on behalf of Joe Biden. She texts with undecided friends during the debates, arguing for the Democratic nominee. And she is helping to organize voter drives in her suburban Cleveland neighborhood.
But a political activist? No way.
“It’s just not something that I ever would have described myself as, if you talked to me a year ago,” said Rabinovitch. “I’m just a mom with the feels, like hard feels.”
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Four years ago, Rabinovitch agonized over which candidate to support. In the final minutes of voting, she walked into the booth still uncertain. She left having cast her ballot for Donald Trump.
“I thought, ‘Oh, what’s the worst that could happen?’” she recalled recently. “I do feel guilty.”
For much of the country, polarized views about the president and his chaotic upending of American politics haven’t budged since 2016, when he squeezed out a narrow Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote. Yet, there is a demographic group that has changed its mind: white women in the suburbs.
In 2016, the suburbs powered Trump’s victory, with exit polls showing that he won those areas by four points. Now, polling in swing states shows the president losing those voters by historic margins, fueled by a record-breaking gender gap. Biden leads by 23 points among suburban women in battleground states, according to recent polling by The New York Times and Siena College. Among men, the race is tied.
Trump’s suburban deficit has emerged as a significant problem for his reelection bid, one that’s left the president begging with women to come home.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” the president said at a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, this week. “Please. Please.”
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For Rabinovitch, no amount of pleading will undo the damage of the past four years. On a chilly October evening in a suburban Columbus backyard, she gathered with three other women, all mothers of young children, to discuss their political evolutions.
Not all of them voted for Trump, but all carry regret about 2016. For them, the president’s words and actions have forced an intimate re-examination of their deep-rooted, more conservative political identities — taught in church and school and inherited from their families — and some things that are even more personal: their sense of morality and the values they hope to impart to their children.
Perhaps most worrisome for the president and his party is that the shift could go beyond Trump on the ballot this year, and outlast him. Armed with tumblers of wine, the women described how Trump had turned them off from a Republican Party they once supported, one that they now see as intertwined with the president’s divisive rhetoric.
“I cannot imagine a Republican candidate that I would rally behind,” said Hannah Dasgupta, who is a stay-at-home mother of two school-age children and grew up in a conservative home. “Wow, that’s mind-blowing to think about. That’s a huge departure.”
Dasgupta, 37, said she had never liked Trump but had been unable to support Hillary Clinton in 2016.
For Dasgupta, who was raised attending Christian schools, opposition to abortion was central to her political beliefs. After Clinton offered an unapologetic defense of abortion rights in the final presidential debate, Dasgupta cast her ballot for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.
“The crazy thing is like, I wouldn’t know the guy if he was sitting next to me,” Dasgupta said. “I don’t think I could identify him. But those Republican roots were deep, and the abortion issue is strong.”
Over the past four years, Dasgupta’s views on abortion have shifted to the left as her opinion of the president has sunk. She has grown tired of explaining his actions — such as his comments in this week’s town hall questioning the effectiveness of mask-wearing — to her young children.
She connects her support of Biden to her role as a mother, saying that she spends time teaching her children basic skills like sharing and speaking respectfully — traits she believes the president lacks.
“In the last four years, my children have grown and developed more than he has in regards to the way he speaks to other people, the way he speaks about other people,” she said.
Katie Paris, the founder of Red, Wine and Blue, an all-female team of “PTA mamas and digital divas” focused on organizing suburban female voters for Ohio Democrats, hears such sentiments frequently.
She believes that for Democrats to keep the support of women like Dasgupta, they must recognize the intimate nature of their politics. Paris’ philosophy of political organizing is a mix of David Plouffe, the famed Democratic data guru, and Brené Brown, the research professor who has become a viral self-help star.
Paris, who brought together the group of women around the backyard firepit, believes that moving away from a political identity takes “courageous conversations.” And the way to encourage people on that path involves “being vulnerable with each other about what’s going on in our lives at a personal level.”
Many suburban women already have doubts about Trump, she said, but may be reluctant to express their political opinions, particularly to a young campaign organizer from out of state. Her group hires as organizers women who have lived in their suburban communities for over a decade, tapping into their existing networks of class parents and tee-ball coaches.
“We can’t leave this all on Black voters to carry all the weight in Ohio,” added Paris, who is white. “It’s going to take all of us.”
She and her team are particularly proud of their large presence on social media. One recent viral effort featured women posting photos of themselves in aprons and curlers with Democratic campaign signs while holding cocktails, a spoof on Trump’s Twitter appeals to the “Suburban Housewives of America.”
Paris and the Democrats hope to repeat the strategy that won their party control of the House in 2018, driving up their margins among suburban women in swing districts.
They have some reason for optimism: Four years ago, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points. Now, polling shows a tied race. Still, Ohio may remain out of reach for Democrats this year. The 2018 strategy was far less successful there than elsewhere in the Midwest, and the popular incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown was the only Democrat to win statewide. The perennial swing state has trended Republican recently, and plenty of female voters still support the president.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘How can you vote for Trump when you’re a woman and the things he says about women?’” said Rachel Antonelli, 35, a banker in Delaware, Ohio, who is pregnant with her second child and plans to vote for Trump. “Personally, what I care about is that he gets things done for the country.”
Since the summer of racial justice protests and unrest around the country, Republicans have tried to woo back white suburban women with a focus on “law and order,” stoking racial fears and depicting the increasingly diverse suburbs as the sole province of white, affluent families. According to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, white people made up 77% of the population in inner-ring suburbs in 1990; today they are 58%, he said.
The women in Columbus, who are all white, described the killing of George Floyd as a seminal event in their political awakenings, one that drew attention to issues of racism and police violence beyond their personal purview.
“I’m not going to lie and say, like, in February, I was worried about racism in America,” said Rabinovitch, who has a 4-year-old son. “Like, I wasn’t.”
The video of Floyd’s killing, she said, forced her to acknowledge structural problems in American society.
“I have to think of everybody,” she said. “So if I’m voting against Donald Trump, that’s not a vote for me or a vote for my son. That’s a vote for everyone. Everyone’s sons.”
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