Jill Mott doesn’t like the tweets. The hard line on the border is too hard. And when asked whether she will vote for President Donald Trump a second time, she lets out a long, deep sigh.
“That is the question,” said Mott, a Republican from suburban Detroit.
In her moment of hesitancy, Mott is the portrait of a small, but significant slice of voters poised to wield considerable influence in the 2020 presidential campaign. They are the 18 percent of voters who described themselves as only “somewhat” approving of the president.
It’s a group whose backing for Trump is most tenuous and whose reservations about his personality and his policies reveal warning signs for Republicans, perhaps even more so as he dug in on his demand for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, leading to a budget impasse with Congress that has shut down the government around Christmas.
An analysis of VoteCast, a nationwide poll of more than 115,000 midterm voters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, highlights the fractures.
Compared with the 27 percent of voters who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters, the “somewhat” Trump voters are much more likely to disapprove of Trump on key issues such as immigration and health care, and to express divergent opinions on a need for a border wall, gun control and climate change. They are much more likely to question his trustworthiness and temperament.
They are less likely to call themselves conservative, less likely to be evangelical Christians and more likely to have voted for Democrats in 2018. They are more educated, somewhat more likely to be women, and more likely to live in suburbs.
“How he presents himself is the biggest issue,” said Mott, a 52-year-old occupational therapist, who addressed her concerns this past week during a break from Christmas shopping outside the Gucci store at the Somerset Collection luxury mall. She also worries about the president’s fiery approach to immigration.
“I understand what he’s going for — trying to keep out criminal activity,” Mott said, pointing to Trump’s rhetoric about a caravan of Latin American migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border. “However, I think he could do much better in showing concern for these people, offering short-term help.”
As Trump barrels into his third year in office, and tightens his focus on his own re-election, he has paid scant attention to shoring up support from voters such as Mott.
Still, Trump’s political future may depend on whether he can retain their support, particularly among the more educated and affluent suburban women who set aside their concerns about Trump two years ago and will be asked to do so again in 2020. Their backing helped Trump carve a path to the presidency through the industrial Midwest, but with little margin for error. The president won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by fewer than 80,000 votes combined.
VoteCast found that 16 percent of those who “somewhat” supported Trump’s job performance decided to vote for Democratic House candidates in the November midterms. That’s compared with 6 percent of those who self-identified as Trump’s “strong” supporters.
That difference helped Democrats capture the House majority, picking up 21 of their 40 new seats in districts Trump carried only two years earlier. The flipped Trump districts include Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, a swath of suburban middle-class America set between Detroit and Lansing.
Dozens of recent interviews across the area show that most reluctant Trump supporters aren’t ready to turn their backs on him or his party.
Michael Bernstein voted for Trump in 2016 and said he is likely would do so again in 2020. Bernstein, 52, points to the economy and to Trump’s success in getting justices approved to the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence that he chose the right candidate, but the freelance auto writer from suburban Detroit could do without some of what Trump brings.
“He’s supposed to represent the country and the people who don’t like him,” Bernstein added. “He doesn’t. He prefers to play in the dirt.”
Still, November’s elections bear out signs of erosion. In Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, two-term Republican Mike Bishop was ousted by Democratic newcomer Elissa Slotkin, who attributes her victory in part to skeptical Trump supporters.
“That’s part of the reason we won — those voters who kept an open mind, who never really liked the tweeting and the chaos and the vitriol who maybe thought the president would become more presidential,” Slotkin said in an interview.
“We had lots of voters who said I was the first Democrat they ever voted for,” she said. “They’re not necessarily becoming Democrats. They just voted for the candidate who most represents their values.”
The VoteCast analysis suggests that a significant share of these wary Trump supporters have some views in common with Democrats in the Trump era.
About half of Trump’s “somewhat” supporters said Trump has the right temperament to serve effectively as president or considered him honest and trustworthy.
On health care, reluctant supporters are more likely to think government should be responsible for making sure all Americans have coverage and they’re far less likely to think President Barack Obama’s health care law should be repealed entirely.
Trump’s reluctant supporters also are far more concerned about climate change than are other Trump backers and more likely to call for tighter gun laws.
Immigration exposed another clear rift in the Trump coalition.
Most Trump supporters favor building the border wall, but just 32 percent of his somewhat supporters are strongly in favor, compared with 80 percent of his strong approvers.
While 60 percent of strong Trump backers said immigrants living in the United States illegally should be deported, about 6 in 10 reluctant supporters said those immigrants should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
Still, it’s not safe to assume that reluctant Trump supporters will abandon the president in his 2020 re-election, said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, also a Trump skeptic.
“They have rejected the Democrats. But they don’t fully embrace Trump. So, the question is whether they stay with Trump or whether they stay home,” Luntz said.
Republican leaders are aware of the divisions within Trump’s base of support, yet few expect Trump to moderate his tone or policies to appeal to wavering supporters. Some hope he’ll learn to focus his message on the economy.
About 90 percent of Trump’s somewhat supporters are still supporting of his handling of the economy, and 8 in 10 said he is a strong leader, he is bringing needed change to the government and he stands up for what he believes.
“Of course there are frustrations at times, however I know I have more money in my paycheck, more people working in our community, home values are up,” said Theresa Mungioli, the GOP chairwoman of Oakland County, Michigan, where Republicans lost two congressional seats this fall.
She acknowledged that some midterm voters, particularly women, may have soured on Trump’s leadership, especially as it pertains to security issues.
“Maybe in part because the president can be — likes to bluff in his negotiations, which makes it look like we’re on the brink of war,” Mungioli said. “That kind of instability was something that voters expressed.”