Why these voters rejected Hillary Clinton but are backing democratic nominee Joe Biden

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By Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein


Samantha Kacmarik, a Latina college student in Las Vegas, said that four years ago, she had viewed Hillary Clinton as part of a corrupt political establishment.

Flowers Forever, a Black transgender music producer in Milwaukee, said she had thought Clinton wouldn’t change anything for the better.

And Thomas Moline, a white retired garbageman in Minneapolis, said he simply hadn’t trusted her.

None of them voted for Clinton. All of them plan to vote for Joe Biden.

“I knew early that Trump definitely wasn’t the guy for me,” recalled Moline, an independent. But when it came to Clinton, “I guess I had a bad taste in my mouth from her husband’s eight years in office.” He voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, a decision he regrets, and he feels at ease backing Biden.

“I identify more with Biden — whether that’s being a male chauvinist or whatever you want to call me,” he said.

The point seems almost too obvious to note: Biden is not Clinton. Yet for many Democrats and independents who sat out 2016, voted for third-party candidates or backed Donald Trump, it is a rationale for their vote that comes up repeatedly: Biden is more acceptable to them than Clinton was, in ways large and small, personal and political, sexist and not — and those differences help them feel more comfortable voting for the Democratic nominee this time around.

Biden also benefits, of course, from the intense desire among Democrats to get Trump out of office. And a majority of voters give the president low marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the dominant issue of the race. But a key distinction between 2020 and 2016 is that, four years ago, the race came down to two of the most disliked and polarizing candidates in American history, and one of them also faced obstacles that came with being a barrier-breaking woman.

Biden now leads Trump in many public polls by bigger margins than Clinton had in 2016. In private polling and focus groups, voters express more positive views of Biden than of Clinton, though they know far less about his decades in political office, according to strategists affiliated with both Democrats’ campaigns.

Interviews with dozens of voters, union members and Democratic strategists reveal a party embracing Biden — a 77-year-old white man — as a familiar political pitch, though some bristled at what they saw as the gender bias in that assessment.

“The Republicans did a fantastic job of making Hillary Clinton seem like the devil for the last 20-plus years, so she was a hard sell,” said Aaron Stearns, the Democratic chair in Warren County in northwestern Pennsylvania. “It’s just a lot easier with Joe Biden because he’s a guy and he’s an old white guy. I hate saying that, but it’s the truth.”

Even as Biden proposes a significantly bigger role for government than Clinton did four years ago, some voters view the Democratic nominee as more moderate compared with how they saw her. And they don’t see him as being as divisive a political figure as they did Clinton, despite Biden’s long record of legislative battles.

“I didn’t like Hillary. I felt that she was a fraud, basically, lying and conniving,” said Sarah Brown, 27, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, who regrets her 2016 vote for Trump and plans to vote for Biden. “I’m not a superbig fan of him, either, but the two options — I guess it’s the lesser evil.”

Biden leads Trump, 49% to 19%, among likely voters who backed third-party candidates in 2016, according to recent polling of battleground states by The New York Times and Siena College. Among registered voters who sat out the 2016 election, Biden leads by 9 percentage points, the polls found.

At times, Biden has been notably critical of his party’s 2016 nominee, arguing that she lacked “vision” and failed to connect with working-class voters and openly relitigating what he saw as Clinton’s debate missteps.

He has also noted “unfair” sexism against her, adding at an event in Iowa, “That’s not going to happen with me.”

Clinton, too, has reflected on how she was perceived during the race.

“You should also be prepared for the slights, the efforts to diminish you — you personally, you as a woman,” she advised Sen. Kamala Harris on Clinton’s podcast before the vice presidential debate.

In 2016, Trump’s appeal as a political leader was intriguing to many voters, given that he was an outsider and that few expected him to win, while Clinton was a Washington veteran.

“Always, institutionally, people want to get change,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a close friend of the Clintons. “Trump was anti-establishment, anti-swamp. They now have seen the horror that this man has done to our country.”

Yet, even as votes are being cast in 2020, Democrats still worry about some of the reasons for their loss in 2016.

Clinton’s campaign was criticized over its ground game in some battleground states; Biden’s campaign avoided direct contact with voters for months. Clinton was attacked for keeping a lighter schedule than Trump at times; Biden made his first visit of the year to Wisconsin in September.

But Biden has never been torn down like Clinton, who had faced more than two decades of unrelenting GOP attacks by the time she ran.

Internal polling conducted for the Bernie Sanders campaign found that Biden had a reservoir of goodwill that Clinton did not possess.

“He was a hard guy to hit,” said Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster. “There’s not a lot of passion for him, but they like him.”

Republicans, too, have found Biden to be a much tougher target. Even now, four years after she last ran for any office, Clinton has appeared in more Republican ads attacking down-ballot Democratic candidates than has Biden, according to data compiled by Advertising Analytics. In the final weeks of his campaign, Trump has tried to reignite controversy over Clinton’s emails, blasting out fundraising requests with the subject line: “HILLARY CLINTON.”

Accounts of focus groups conducted by the two campaigns underscore how perceptions of Biden and Clinton are shaped by voters’ genders.

The quality of Clinton’s that emerged as the most appealing in 2016 groups was not her accomplishments but that she had set aside her own ambitions to serve in President Barack Obama’s administration, according to people involved with the campaign.

Winning over female voters entailed walking a particularly tortured path, former campaign aides say.

“She had to show more experience than they did, but not so much experience that they couldn’t relate to her,” said Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Clinton’s campaign. “We kept running into those conflicts in people’s own heads.”

In focus groups conducted by the Biden campaign after he won the party nomination, voters were generally unfamiliar with his achievements but far less conflicted about him personally, strategists said.

“Biden didn’t have as much definition as I thought he would have had in the electorate,” said Steve Schale, a veteran Florida Democratic operative who is chief executive of Unite the Country, a super political action committee backing Biden. “They just see him as a nice guy.”

Clinton and many others believe she faced a more difficult political calculus because of her gender, indicating in a tweet after the first debate that she would have liked to tell Trump to “Shut up, man” — as Biden did — but had been constrained by how those attacks might have backfired against her.

“When you’ve never had a woman president, it’s hard to imagine what that’s going to look like,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, an organization that seeks to elect Democratic women.

Unlike Clinton, who was known as a workhorse legislator and secretary of state and projected that image, Biden spent decades cultivating a brand as just another guy riding home on the Amtrak.

“There’s no doubt there was an element of sexism, but also there was a sense that she was looking down on people,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign strategist. “Biden, his cultural sensibilities are different.”

Voters who rejected Clinton and who now back Biden present varying rationales. Midwestern union workers, most of them men, said they had found it hard to identify with Clinton, never mind picture her as president.

“I have more faith in Joe Biden than Hillary because I like his background, where he grew up,” said Dave Clawson, the Democratic treasurer of the United Steelworkers chapter in Lorain, Ohio. “He’s middle class, worked his way up. I saw her as not a very nice person. I don’t know how to explain it.”

John Melody, a retired steelworker from South Euclid, Ohio, said he had questioned why Clinton wanted the job, attributing most of her success to her husband.

“I thought the girl just wanted the job because she wanted to be the boss, that’s all,” said Melody, 76, who often votes Democratic for president but supported the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, in 2016. “Biden’s a regular guy.”

In focus groups, Black voters who sat out 2016 said they hadn’t believed that Clinton would tangibly improve their lives, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC that aims to energize Black voters.

“With Biden, their assumption is, he will mitigate their pain and suffering,” Shropshire said.

Democrats say Biden doesn’t provoke the same level of antipathy in rural areas, where vandalism of Clinton’s yard signs was rampant four years ago.

Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh and its suburbs, said he sees Biden signs in conservative areas where he had never spotted support for Clinton.

“Seeing people that live in some of these Trump counties that feel confident enough to put a Joe Biden sign in their yard just tells you something,” he said.

Liberal Democrats, too, are showing more willingness to set aside their ideological differences, following the lead of Sanders, who quickly backed Biden after ending his primary bid.

“In the last election, I didn’t see things as being as dire as I do in this election, and I didn’t think that Donald Trump could win,” said Nikki Baker, 66, a Minneapolis waitress who voted for Stein in 2016. “When Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky are saying you have to vote for Joe Biden, then I have to vote for Joe Biden.”



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