OZY on the Trail: Why Obama Voters Are Turning to Trump

OZY on the Trail: Why Obama Voters Are Turning to Trump

Why you should care

Because with just 33 days until the election, this shift among voters could play a surprising role on Election Day.


Like others who visited a certain recycling factory on Thursday in rustic York County, Pennsylvania, Kelly Neely has undergone a political evolution. Just four years ago she voted for a man who looks and sounds nothing like the braggadocio Donald J. Trump. “I voted for Obama,” she says. “I felt like he deserved a second term for getting bin Laden.”

But now, with her blonde locks peeking through her “Make America Great Again” cap and her 2-year-old daughter at her side, Neely is talking about jobs — or rather, the lack of them in what remains a key swing state in this election. When Neely is asked if some of Trump’s comments have been racist, as certain critics have alleged, she says the accusation makes her want to cry. Then she does. “Because it’s not true,” she chokes out through sobs. “Just because we want something better for our children, it doesn’t mean we’re racist.”

trump supporter

A Trump supporter at a rally in Manheim, Pennsylvania

Source Nick Fouriezos / OZY

That Trump, a first-time political candidate and septuagenarian, is on the doorstep of the White House is a political surprise of massive proportions and multiple dimensions. But what’s rarely discussed is how his rise correlates with an equally unexpected trend: Millions of people who voted for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 are seriously thinking about voting for the Donald this time around. Indeed, some surveys and polls have found that between 10 and 15 percent of Trump’s support — or an estimated 4.6 million to 9.8 million voters — has been coming from those who backed Obama in the previous election. In many states this election cycle, voters have changed their party registration from unaffiliated or Democrat to Republican, and the numbers buoy Trump’s hopes in important states such as Colorado (where 35,000 switched), Iowa (65,000), Pennsylvania (140,000) and Ohio (more than 1 million). They’ve organized too, under names such as “Democrats for Trump,” or, as one political action committee more cheekily christened itself, “Trumpocrats.”

Just because we want something better for our children, it doesn’t mean we’re racist.

Kelly Neely

These possible party switchers usually get lost amid broad talk of deplorables and angry white voters, and their perspective is not often understood. But their voices could be especially influential in areas where economic stress and lower favorability ratings for the president converge. Daryl Basarae of Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, voted for John Kerry in ’04 and supported Obama over Sen. John McCain in ’08. But he’s found Hillary Clinton to be more impulsive than Trump and that while Trump talks big about some matters involving national security, the billionaire actually seems less likely to jump into war, Basarae says.

Interestingly, many of Basarae’s fellow Obamaites-turned-Trumpocrats are not who you might expect: Nearly 20 percent are Hispanic, and a full 44 percent are women, according to the RAND Presidential Election Panel Survey. “We thought that Obama could change things — and he didn’t,” Neely says. Only about 12 percent are out of the labor force, and even fewer — 10 percent — are unemployed. Even so, they do tend to share certain concerns, such as those over the U.S. economy and trade, and they’re much more preoccupied by issues surrounding immigration, and show more support for building a border wall than other former Obama voters, says Michael Pollard, a sociologist at RAND Corp.

In recent American political history, despite constant talk of polarization, there has been more voter fluidity than conventional wisdom often recognizes. Look no further than Reagan Democrats, or white-collar, stock-market-loving Republicans who backed Bill Clinton. Then there were all those voters in states where President Clinton won decisively — twice — who later turned out and voted for George W. Bush instead of Clinton’s VP, Al Gore.

To be sure, it’s not just Democrats shifting. Some registered Republicans today may end up staying home next month — or, HRC may yet wrest these voters away. In addition to her first debate win, the recent onslaught of criticism against Trump by leading newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today, is surely testing the commitment of certain Trump converts. So too may further revelations about his taxes.

But for now, these Obama-to-Trump converts don’t seem to be going anywhere: “So far this group seems to have been pretty stable since December,” Pollard notes, “despite other suggestions that they will return to the Democratic Party by the election.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly estimated the number of Trump supporters who previously backed Obama.

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.