These Vermonters Voted For Trump In 2016. What About 2020?
With mail-in voting already underway and a president who has COVID-19 — and who has not pledged to accept the results if he loses — we check in with some of his supporters.
Note: This show is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can.
Among the episodes in the archive of Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism show, there are a few oldies that listeners keep downloading. Including one from November 2016, about the nearly 100,000 Vermonters who voted for Donald Trump that year.
Fast forward four years. We were toying with the idea of returning to these voters, to see how they’re going to vote this time. And then we got this voicemail, on our BLS hotline:
This is Sarah Page from Brattleboro, Vermont. I was hoping that you would re-interview the subjects you spoke with in your November 30, 2016 podcast, as to their view of President Trump and his administration, and whether it has changed. If it has, how so? Why? And why not? Thank you.
So, it was meant to be.
Gauging Trump's support
The big question in a re-election story is, of course: Does this candidate have the same level of support that they used to? But we didn’t have to go back to the people from our old episode to get a sense of that.
A September poll from VPR and Vermont PBS found that 32% of likely Vermont voters support President Trump’s reelection. That’s roughly the same percentage as 2016: About one in three voters.
The national polls tell a different story — as of early October, Trump’s support appears to be flagging. But in Vermont, has anything changed?
Since just two people from our 2016 episode agreed to another interview, we wanted to find some new voices. So we made dozens of phone calls to people who’d responded to the recent poll.
We got some intense responses — from Vermonters who aren’t Trump supporters. (“No way in hell!” and “Let me put it this way: There’s not enough money in the whole wide world for me to vote for Trump,” and “I’d vote for him for a place in an institution.”)
In this light, it’s easy to understand why some Trump voters are taking a pass on the press. The people we’re featuring here are either super outspoken — think Trump flags and bumper stickers. Or, they’re hesitant to talk politics publicly. That certainly goes for Michael Spafford.
Reported by Howard Weiss-Tisman
I met Michael Spafford back in 2016, when we did that first story about the Trump voters in Vermont. He lives in Clarendon, and runs a general store.
He made it pretty clear back then that he wasn’t totally excited about his vote.
“I had no passion for Trump the entire election, and I had no passion for him when I checked his name,” Michael said. “It was just totally an anti-Hillary vote.”
He told me four years ago that the 2016 election was so contentious and so ugly that he had hopes that it might lead to some real changes.
“I think it’s a huge wake-up call for the Democratic Party, but it’s a huge wake-up call for the Republican Party,” he said. “Look who these guys are saddled with right now. None of them like him.”
So fast-forward four years, how does Michael Spafford think things are going in the country?
“I’m seeing friends of mine on both sides, not treating mutual friends respectfully, lovingly, kindly and honorably, due to the political divide in our country today,” Michael says. “And I don’t necessarily think it comes from Trump. I think it’s an issue of the heart. Like, I’m waiting for the pendulum to swing back, and I firmly believe it will. But right now, the spirit of our times, there’s hostility, there’s anger, there’s fear. Neither side is willing to give up an inch.”
At first, Micahel Spafford didn't want to talk to BLS. He said the last time he was featured in VPR's coverage, he got some pushback – there were some customers in his store who were upset. He said both sides were upset with him: His Democratic friends were upset that he voted for Trump, and his Republican friends were upset that he wasn’t strongly supporting the president.
But eventually, he agreed to another interview.
“Why is it that you and I come across wonderful people in our paths each and every day, and now it’s down to this, we’re arguing the merits of Donald Trump and Joe Biden?” Michael said in a phone interview.
It just sounds like he’s disappointed in the whole process, and that he doesn’t have a lot of options.
“It’s like, this is the best we’ve got,” he said. “After 244 years and 320 million people, we’ve got these two people running. And we have to make our choice between these two.”
Michael didn’t want to talk about specific issues — but he didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement of the president.
“Trump might not always have the greatest way of saying things," he said. "But the issues that I’m passionate about have been with me since I was in junior high school. The issues haven’t changed. The presidents have, but the issues I am passionate about have remained the same.”
Will he be voting for Trump in 2020?
“Trump and the Republican Party would be more in line with my very, very long list of issues that are near to my heart,” Michael said. "But I’m not happy about a lot of them. And I’m waiting to see what’s gonna take place in the next couple weeks.”
Reported by Angela Evancie
Another voter from our 2016 episode was Mary Gerdt. Here’s what she said back then:
“I've connected with a lot of people that were conservative, that are disabled, that are Sikhs, Sikhs for Trump, Blacks for Trump. So I think we all kind of coalesced in this group that wasn’t ever there before.”
The past four years have held big changes for Mary and her husband.
“We made a big move from Vermont,” she says. “We lived in Monkton for about 40 years ... And we decided to sell our farm — what was left of it — and the house, and move to Virginia.”
Mary says it was an affordability decision. Now she lives in a town called Louisa.
“On a slightly dirt road,” she says. “Nothing like I used to travel in Vermont! Everything’s paved, there’s no potholes. It’s like heaven.”
Something that hasn’t changed? Mary’s support for Donald Trump.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m definite,” she says. “Yeah. No question.”
Mary says she used to be a "die-hard Democrat."
“You know, I think about the benevolence of being a Democrat, take care of everybody,” she says. “But then when it tips over into progressive government, or socialism, where you’re taking from everybody, there’s no motivation to get ahead.”
Now she’s a Republican.
“I would say, more Libertarian, if that could ever become successful,” she says.
This former nurse says she picked Trump in 2016 because she didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. (“It over-promised.”) And:
“I was hoping to see a shakeup in government, where it wasn’t just career politicians going back to the trough, [and] not being in touch with me, on my level.”
So how is Mary feeling on those two points?
“Well, I feel like the deficit just goes up and up, and it doesn’t seem to change in that respect,” she says. “I think there’s definitely a division in the country, division in my family, my friends.”
You’ll notice that Mary cited two negatives. When I ask her what she thinks has been positive about the Trump presidency, she mentions a few things. De-regulation; a list she’d seen online about what Trump had done for Black Americans; and Melania Trump.
I ask: “Do you feel like your life is better four years into a Trump presidency?”
“Yes, in a way,” Mary says. “Part of is feeling good that we won. It’s like, honestly... Hillary really sunk my boat when she said, 'His followers are all deplorable'… What does that mean, 'deplorable?'”
Mary is still savoring the 2016 victory, four years later.
“I felt pretty good about that,” she says. “I felt pretty good about the fact that we finally came to the realization that we had to leave Vermont. And we had to just do it. It’s tough. That was really tough. So, on a personal level — and, you know, I’ve been disabled a while, but it’s been hard to … it’s been hard to handle not working.”
These days Mary spends most of her time at home.
“I do a lot of internet, you know, surfing,” she says. “I tweet a lot. I have a blog, I do a blog every day. I joined Parler, which is a conservative Twitter kind of a thing.”
When she talked to BLS four years ago, Mary said she hoped Americans would learn how to talk across difference. So how does she think that’s going in our country right now?
“Yeah, I think it’s not happening,” she says. “The great divide. And I think that shutting us down has made it bigger ... It’s more divisive and contentious: Do you wear a mask, do you not wear a mask?”
Mary is talking about Trump’s politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic — which is widely seen as contributing to our country’s high death toll: 209,000 Americans and counting. But Mary doesn’t blame the president for our country’s response.
“I think Dr. Fauci is one that he’s — he really shouldn’t be using that guy,” she says.
She blames other public figures, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — both Democrats.
Mary has no problem with Trump’s response to the racial justice protests, either: “I was hoping that they would let him keep the National Guard in those places.”
In fact, no matter which national crisis we talk about, Mary has no words of criticism for the president. Even when she disagrees with his policies.
On the climate crisis, for example, she says this:
“Well, you know, I’ve been anti-fracking for forever. That is something I completely disagree with. On the other hand fuel is a lot cheaper ... But I’m concerned about that. And I’m concerned about, in the west, the lack of good forestry management.”
Recent polling shows Joe Biden ahead in Mary’s new home state of Virginia. So what will she do if he wins?
“Oh, I’ll just start crying,” she laughs. “No I’m just kidding. I’m not sure my life will change all that much.”
Reported by Angela Evancie
“I felt, when I first looked into Donald Trump in 2016, I really believed that he loved America,” says Linda Dempsey, of Bradford. “I liked his attitude. And I thought he was strong, and I thought we needed that. As it turns out, I am looking at Donald Trump today thinking he has exceeded all my expectations. I am really pleased.”
Dempsey says she’s pleased with what Donald Trump has done on multiple fronts: Immigration, jobs.
“Stop relying on these other countries, because when you rely on other countries to make your stuff and they cut you off, you're in big trouble,” she says. “And I don't understand why so many think that being an independent country where you can take care of yourself is a problem.”
But she’s also motivated by anger, and fear.
“When I look at the trouble that I'm seeing today, like these rioters and, you know, our athletes taking a knee instead of saluting the flag, [and] people in these cities, wanting to defund the police ... Who does that? Without the police to protect and serve? We're not safe. That’s an issue to me.”
The fact that so much civil unrest has taken place on President Trump’s watch doesn’t sway Linda.
“He's trying to stop that,” she says. “But [in] these cities where this rioting is taking place, the mayors and the people running those cities, step back and let it happen. And they tell their police officers, no ... leave [the protestors] alone. I don’t understand it. So you know what? This has nothing to do with Donald Trump except for just taking America down. This is a very hateful group.”
When asked what she thinks of the reasons that Americans have taken to the streets, Linda says this:
“I believe they're being paid. I believe … most of those groups are being paid [by] George Soros. I've heard it, but I can't prove it. But I just believe there's something behind that. If it's not that, it's something else.”
What Linda is talking about here is a conspiracy theory. It has no basis in fact. What is true is that millions and millions of people have marched this year as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful.
Linda says she believes in the constitutional right to protest.
“I believe they can protest. I believe people should protest,” she says. “But I don’t — I really, really don’t think this has anything to do with Black lives. I really don’t. This is a political move. I really do believe that there’s somebody big behind all this.”
This isn’t the only misinformation Linda Dempsey references when we talk. She’s also skeptical of the facts about the pandemic.
“I think the numbers were jacked. I really do,” she says. “I think people did die from it. I do think it was probably serious, but I don't think it was nearly as serious as they made it. I don’t think anybody needs to be running around in masks … And I feel bad because I think so many people were so scared and it totally destroyed so many things for people. Again, I think that was pretty convenient.”
“Convenient” in what way?
“I think this pandemic — it wasn't really that serious, but was an opportunity to make it into a big problem,” Linda says.
During our conversation, Linda references YouTube a lot. It’s where she gets almost all her news. (“The only mainstream TV I watch, and it's only once in a while," she says, "is Fox.")
And based on what she’s seeing, Linda thinks there’s a strong contrast between Joe Biden’s base, and Trump’s base:
“I see ... the supporters of the Republican Party have these boat rallies. They're gigantic. And what do you see? You see happiness. You see, ‘Support our police. We love America. Four more years!’ I mean, you see all that, and you hear the National Anthem playing on their speakers. I mean, these people love their country and they are big. I'm seeing that. And then I might wait a little while longer on the same channel, and now what I'm seeing is a bunch of crazy people running through cities, busting out windows, beating people up, putting things on fire — I go, ‘What a contrast. What a contrast!’”
And for Linda Dempsey, this election is all about that contrast.
“The upcoming election to me is going to be not, like, Donald Trump against Joe Biden, Joe Biden against Donald Trump. It's not that so much,” Linda says. “It’s, for me, I really, truly, 100% believe this: This is an election year about freedom or socialism. You know, freedom or control. Guns or no guns. Choices or no choices. The contrast is just so black and white.”
Linda also said something that caught my ear, about accountability. It’s the same rhetoric you’ll hear among Democratic voters:
“There's like, no accountability anymore. There's two sets of rules. One for this side, one for that side. And I think it's horrible. There's so much division ... It's everywhere. I don’t know. I’m just saying that, when it comes to lawbreakers, there should be consequences. But there isn't always.”
Linda Dempsey will be voting in person on Nov. 3.
Reported by Anna Van Dine
A few weeks ago I was driving in Moretown and I stopped at a yard sale. The first thing I noticed about the house was the display of flags hanging from the porch – a Vermont state flag, a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, and a “Trump 2020 Keep America Great” flag.
I didn’t get anything at the yard sale. But I did meet the man who lived there – his name is Raymond Munn. An older guy, with grey facial hair peeking out from under his mask. He was wearing a t-shirt, jean shorts, and a hat that said Trump 2020.
Which is why, on the last Tuesday in September, I got back in the car and drove down the road to Raymond’s house to talk to him.
In high school, Raymond earned the nickname “Trouble.”
“I just have always liked to crank somebody up," he says. "They'd say their views about something. Even though I agree with them, I would used to go the opposite way, just to stir the pot. Can't do that anymore — you get in trouble, real trouble today."
In addition to supporting Trump’s re-election, Raymond Munn voted for him in 2016.
“Because he was a businessman and not a politician,” Raymond says. “He's done very well bringing the economy back. And also with some foreign countries, he did not back down from them. And I think he's just — he's done a great job. Although sometimes he talks and Twitters a little too much. He doesn't always get his facts straight. A lot of people says he lies a lot. 'He's this. He's that.' But he’s sure done good with the economy, [and the] stock market.”
Aside from that, he also told me he was concerned about gun control — he’s a hunter. (At one point, he stopped in the middle of answering one of my questions to point out turkeys in the field.) And he’s not a fan of the Affordable Care Act. He told me he wants to see the economy improve, which is what it had been doing fairly steadily in between 2008 and the pandemic. And he says the U.S. should be more economically autonomous. He thinks Trump will make that happen.
“You know, I just think that another four years he'll get the U.S. back to where it belongs,” he says.
Raymond Munn is 76 years old. He’s lived in the Mad River Valley pretty much his whole life. And now he’s got kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. And money is a concern for him – when he was younger, he did jobs like construction. And he still works odd jobs today. He takes care of some properties, and helps a couple local businesses with pickups and deliveries.
Politically speaking, he identifies as an Independent.
“I'm from the old school,” he says. “If you wanted something, you had to work for it. And nothing was free. And I would like to see that get back to that.”
That’s something I noticed he went back to a lot during our conversation – he kept talking about how he thinks things are not what they used to be. And he’s troubled by that:
“Yes, it worries me, [the] way society is today, [the] way kids are growing up today. That worries me. My children, my grandchildren, they know how to survive. If they had to find their own food or to heat their homes or whatever, they would survive.”
How does Donald Trump align with those values of self-sufficiency?
“I guess I don't know,” Raymond says. “I don't know how to explain my thoughts. I just think that things are — if we go the other way, I don't know what's going to happen. And it is scary. I think if the Democrats take control or if the Democrats control our administration, they're going to control everything.”
When I asked Raymond what, if anything, might make him change his mind about his vote, he thought about it for a second. And then he said this:
“I don’t think there’s anything that's going to change my mind.”
He wasn’t concerned about Trump’s response to the pandemic; he said the president probably wasn’t well-informed. And he wasn’t fazed by the news about Trump’s tax returns. Raymond says he doesn’t trust the media, and that Trump’s taxes aren’t any of his business, anyway.
“[Trump] can't walk on water,” he says. “You know, I'm sure that there are some things I disagree with, but my feelings, the good outweigh the bad.”
And he told me he’ll be casting his ballot for Trump, in person at the town clerk’s office in Moretown, in the coming days.
Reactions to Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis
As we were finalizing the script for this episode, news broke that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. So we reached back out to folks to see if the news had changed their calculus heading into the election. Here’s what they said.
"I am still going into the election with an open mind. I received my mail in ballot the other day and have been researching all my options. I was surprised to see the Libertarian candidate was in Vermont this weekend.”
“No, not really, because he’s doing really well, and I don’t think it’s been as serious as it might have been.”
“I don’t actually see how it could change anything. I mean, he’s a human being, he’s susceptible to getting sick just like the rest of us. The one sure thing that I can say about this, is I think this really gives him an edge, a super-duper edge, on how he should proceed with the whole COVID thing. So that’s the way I look at it. Am I worried about him? Not at all.”
“I don’t know what’s going on. He was supposed to get discharged today. But I heard he left yesterday, so I don’t know.”
When asked if he was concerned, Raymond said:
“Yeah. Yeah. Yup. But I have been talking with some of my friends in Florida, some of my friends here in Vermont. They think he’s going to lose. And then in three to six months, [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi will say that Biden’s not fit, he is having mental problems, and they’re gonna somehow get him out, Biden out, as president. Who is it? [Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala] Harris will oversee it. She’ll become president, and Pelosi will become vice president.”
So what these friends of Raymond's were implying was ... Nancy Pelosi was going to stage a coup?
Yes, it sounds outlandish. But perhaps it's a preview of what's to come.
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This episode was produced by Anna Van Dine, Howard Weiss-Tisman, and Angela Evancie, with editing by Lynne McCrea. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
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