WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It’s the first time Patricia Murphy has tuned into a 2020 Democratic debate — and she can’t understand why former vice president Joe Biden isn’t doing better.
“Come on, Joe,” she says, leaning toward the TV in the basement of her home on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., clutching a bowl of microwave popcorn. “Get in there.”
But at this particular moment, Biden does not “get in there.” He fumbles and tries again and trails off. By the end of the debate, he is yelling.
Murphy stares wide-eyed at the screen, head in her hands, while her husband — already set on voting for President Trump again — dozes off in the recliner beside her. It’s just the two of them now, their daughters off and grown, present here tonight only in old photographs, wearing velvety Christmas dresses and matching bows.
“Joe is coming across as irrelevant,” Murphy says, shaking her head. “I’m sad for him.”
She is sad for herself too, a little. Though she doesn’t like to admit it, she voted for Trump in 2016. One of her daughters — now a medical resident in New York — didn’t speak to her for days. “I love you, Mom,” Murphy remembers her saying. “But I don’t know if I can ever respect you again.”
Murphy, who considers herself a moderate Republican, is what political analysts would call the “hidden Trump voter.” In 2016, suburban white women, especially in purple states like North Carolina, voted for Trump in far greater numbers than pollsters projected, contributing to Trump winning white women by 53 percent overall. These were women, analysts concluded, who weren’t particularly proud to support Trump, but voted for him anyway.
There are lots of these women in North Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary this week on Super Tuesday, the single day when more voters head to the polls than any other this primary season. Winston-Salem is a progressive university town in the northwest part of the state, but considerably more conservative than nearby Durham or Raleigh. As one woman said, it’s a place with roughly equal numbers of “tattooed, pierced hippies” and people for whom “What church do you go to?” often immediately follows “What is your name?" Most people, multiple women noted, seem to identify as some brand of “moderate.” While the city itself went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, if you drive 15 minutes out in any direction, you’ll find yourself in a light pink precinct that voted, ever so hesitantly, for Trump.
With Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) now the clear Democratic front-runner, many centrist women in Winston-Salem find themselves in a tough spot. They hoped they’d be able to vote for someone other than Trump in 2020: Biden, maybe, or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
But if Sanders is the nominee, they say, “No way.”
Murphy doesn’t regret voting for Trump: She was never going to support Clinton. She will always remember the “60 Minutes” appearance Clinton made when Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992. Responding to a question about her legal career, Clinton said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” To Murphy, that comment felt personal: If the two of them met at a party, Murphy says, she feels sure Clinton would not bother to talk to her, a marketing specialist who took years off to raise her kids, educated far from the Ivy League. Many of her friends feel the same way, she says.
“We’ll talk about how horrible Trump is, how embarrassing. We’re mortified. But then we’ll look at each other and be like, ‘Not having Hillary Clinton as president — worth it.’”
But that was 2016. This time around, Clinton won’t be running, and Murphy always assumed there’d be a Democratic candidate she’d be able to support. Even if she didn’t love the nominee, surely whoever it was would be better than the president, who she says “doesn’t seem to have any brains at all.”
“How could I vote for that again?” she says.
She worries she might have to.
At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, the Panera Bread in Clemmons, a suburb of Winston-Salem, is humming. The patrons — almost all women — sit mostly in happy twos and threes, sipping coffee and swapping stories until one has to leave for an exercise class or a grocery run at the Publix across the street.
Devone Hart and Beth Bean arranged to meet here to talk about wellness. It’s part of how they both make a living — Hart sells essential oils, and Bean leads meditation classes on what she calls “sacred movement.” Neither woman particularly enjoys talking about politics. But today, as they polish off the final crumbs of a bacon-spinach souffle, the conversation turns to Trump.
“When he stands up and starts making fun of people, I’m like, ‘Oh god, Oh no, stop,’” says Bean. She’s an independent who “votes her conscience,” she says, sizing up the person rather than the party. In 1992, she cried when Bill Clinton beat out independent candidate Ross Perot.
“Honestly, I don’t listen to any of the stuff Trump says,” says Hart, who votes Republican mostly because she is staunchly opposed to abortion. “I literally cannot stand to hear him speak.”
Still, she voted for him. So did Bean.
“When I cast my vote, I felt like I was voting for the lesser of two evils,” says Hart. “And this time around, I’m not sure it will be any different.”
Hart is not entirely opposed to voting for a Democrat; she very nearly voted for Al Gore in 2000. It’s embarrassing to vote for Trump, Hart says, but in her “little bubble of the world,” where she and her husband work hard to support their four kids, all home-schooled, it does seem like he’s made things a little better. The economy has improved in Winston-Salem, she says. More businesses seem to be coming to town.
The Democrats aren’t offering many good alternatives to the president, says Bean. She watched the debate last week, and she can’t stand how fiercely they all argue with each other. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) started fighting with former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, she says, she had to turn it off.
“I watched maybe 10 minutes and went, ‘Is this for real? Are these people actually running for president?’”
Shari Dallas is stunned that Sanders is the Democratic front-runner. A registered independent, 59-year-old Dallas voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the last presidential election. Especially at the university where she works as an administrator, people gave her a hard time, saying she wasted her vote on someone who couldn’t win. But Dallas didn’t care: She couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton or Trump. It’s been excruciating, she says, watching Trump run the country — and she’s been eagerly awaiting 2020, when she can use her vote to get him out of office. But now she’s worried she’ll end up voting for an independent candidate again — or maybe not voting at all.
“Bernie Sanders is a socialist and I can’t vote for a socialist. We’ve seen socialism around the world and it just doesn’t work.”
Many of the other options aren’t much better, in her opinion: Bloomberg seems like “Trump 2.0,” she says, and Biden looks “so tired, so old.” In Tuesday’s primary, she had planned to vote for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who strikes her as the kind of guy who would work hard to reach across the aisle. (Buttigieg dropped out of the race on Sunday.)
Bean hasn’t quite made up her mind yet. She wants to spend more time looking into the various Democratic candidates, but she knows she could never vote for Sanders. It’s pretty simple, really, she says: She can’t align herself with socialism.
“I’m just not an activist,” she explains, lowering her voice across the table. “So I’ll probably vote for Trump again.”
Bean glances around at the tables beside her.
“Oh gosh,” she says. “Look at me whispering.”
Patricia Murphy has a lot of friends who qualify as “hidden Trump voters,” women who voted for Trump, but don’t like to talk about it — and will probably vote for him again. She reached out to many of them for this article, asking if they’d be willing to be interviewed. The majority said no.
“Would you be interested in speaking to this journalist?” Murphy asks, talking on her cellphone.
There is a long pause.
“Do you want to think about it?”
“No, I don’t want to think about it,” says the woman on the other end of the line, who Murphy describes as the “lone holdout” in a family of fervent liberal Democrats.
“I’m going to say no,” the woman added, “mostly because I have to live with the grief my family gives me. I just have to keep my opinions and my feelings to myself.”
It’s not entirely surprising, says Murphy. These days, it’s fairly common not to know your friends’ political leanings. People tiptoe around the topic, knowing a stray comment made to the wrong person could lead to an argument — maybe even the end of a friendship.
“I think it’s even harder for women,” says Bean, the meditation teacher. If women support Trump, they’re made to feel particularly guilty, she says, because of his history as a “womanizer.” She usually doesn’t tell people she voted for the president, worried about how it might affect her business, which caters primarily to Winston-Salem’s liberal crowd.
Murphy’s daughter, Scarlett Murphy — the medical resident who argued with her mom over her decision to back Trump in 2016 — knew her dad also voted for Trump. But that didn’t bother her nearly as much. Her dad sells plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, wholesale. Many of his clients, she says, are working-class white men in the South, “stereotypical Trump supporters.” So his decision was not entirely surprising. But she thought her mom would view things differently.
“My mom is someone I would expect to see the full picture of who Trump was,” says Scarlett, “and where his dark spots are.”
She’s not sure how her mom plans to vote this time around.
Patricia isn’t sure, either, but she has a hunch.
“We can end on this — and this is horrible,” she says. “But I’ll probably end up voting for Trump.”