While most of President Trump's 2016 supporters were Republican base voters, for some, the decision to back him in 2016 came in the quiet of a voting booth or as the credits rolled on the final presidential debate. To win again, he must hang onto his previous supporters, including reluctant ones, and win over some who are undecided — all amid nationwide calls for racial justice and a global pandemic that has the U.S. economy reeling.
"If the election was tomorrow, I probably wouldn't even vote," Lori Jo Peters sighs into the phone. "I'm just so confused. It feels like North is South. East is West. Up is down. Nothing is the way it used to be. Nothing is the way it should be," said the 56-year-old from Manheim, Pennsylvania. In 2016, her ballot for Mr. Trump was simply a "vote against Hillary."
Russell Dejulio calls his 2016 vote for Mr. Trump a "tough, tough, tough call" that he would never have made if Joe Biden had topped the ticket four years ago. But the 66-year-old retiree from Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, isn't so sure in 2020. "I do have concerns about Joe Biden's dementia. I've just seen so many gaffes. And then I have to look at Harris as president. And I have a lot of questions with her."
"He got older, for one," observes retired Marine Corps veteran Ed Privé about Biden, whom he supported in 2008 and 2012, before switching to Mr. Trump in 2016. "And he chose the wrong VP," he adds of Senator Kamala Harris. "He should have stuck with someone more moderate." The 69-year-old from Franklin, New Hampshire, turned off the Democratic convention after hearing the 44th president rebuke the 45th. "Former President Obama speaking ill of a sitting president – whether you agree or disagree with the guy – it just turned me off." Privé plans to vote for Mr. Trump again this year.
In nine battleground states polled by CBS News since July, a majority of Mr. Trump's voters stand firmly behind him – between 58% and 76% of his '16 voters across these states both say their support is "very strong" and that they would never vote for Biden. Georgia and Arizona boast the highest numbers of firm Trump voters, with the lowest levels of support showing in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.
However, this cadre of unshakeable supporters alone can't carry Mr. Trump to victory in November. There aren't enough of them. In absolute terms, they've comprised only 22-29% of likely voters in our polling, depending on the state (see darker segments in each bar below). That's a large enough group to put a floor on the president's approval rating but not enough to win critical states again.
To win, the Trump campaign must hang onto the small but significant proportion of his former voters now signaling they could vote Democratic. These softer supporters — who are backing Mr. Trump again but either say they don't support him very strongly or might consider Biden — have made up 15-25% of Mr. Trump's '16 voters, or 10-16% of all likely voters (lighter segments above).
We've found more softer supporters in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Wisconsin — states that Mr. Trump won four years ago but now look very competitive. While some appear open to the president's messaging on the economy, they tend to view Biden as more compassionate and honest than Mr. Trump, offering reservations about the president's handling of coronavirus in particular.
Another 2-8% of Trump's 2016 voters, depending on the state, are now unsure of how they'll vote.
For Cheri Woelfl, a high school teacher from Milwaukee, her city's coronavirus outbreak prompted a different kind of hotspot. In the run-up to remote classes, public school officials scrambled to install supplementary Wi-Fi for her students struggling to connect online. The background noise, hard-to-hear video lessons, and lack of non-verbal cues worry the 51-year-old special needs instructor. She has mixed feelings about the Trump administration's job handling of COVID-19.
"Our country is probably the worst out of all countries in cases and deaths," she concedes. "On the other hand, we had plentiful ventilators for people who might need it." Her tone flips again. "But he didn't lead by good example by not wearing a mask at the beginning of the pandemic."
For serial swing voter Scott Besenkamp, the White House's "gung-ho daily briefings" disappeared too quickly, long before the coronavirus. "It is what it is. That's how they feel right now." The semi-retired former water maintenance worker gave up a part-time job restacking bowling pins after it became clear COVID-19 was not disappearing on its own.
"First, it was 'the summer will take care of it.' Well it's been worse in the summer than when it first started. We're in deep crap come winter," he grumbles. Voting for Joe Biden twice was easier years ago. "I just don't know if he's up to it now."
With debates fast approaching, the side-by-side comparison will offer the 77-year-old Biden his biggest stage after last week's Democratic convention, amid a socially distanced campaign with fewer campaign events than the traditional presidential bids.
"Biden has not been out in public very often," Peters remarks, though he also wonders about the GOP's portrayal of the stay-at-home candidate. "I don't know if this presentation that the conservative side is bringing is accurate. Is he really in the beginning stages of dementia? Does he really not know how to think and speak for himself?"
But Mr. Trump's Twitter missive following Minneapolis man George Floyd's death — "when the shooting starts the looting starts" — left Peters, the mother of an adopted Black son, dispirited. "I don't care if Kaepernick is taking a knee," she interjects. "That's a peaceful protest."
Even more threatening to Mr. Trump's reelection prospects than softer supporters are his former voters who are now rejecting him. These voters hurt him twice as much on a per capita basis than the 1-2% voting for third-party candidates, since he would not only lose their votes, his opponent would gain them. Across states, 3-7% of Trump 2016 voters have said they're voting for Biden. While these percentages may appear small, they have consistently outnumbered the 2-3% of Clinton '16 voters who now back Mr. Trump.
In CBS News Battleground Tracker data collected in nine battleground states and nationwide, "switchers" differ from consistent Trump voters along demographic lines. Switchers are more likely to have college degrees. Like Trump's base, they are predominantly white, but they're disproportionately female. And they tend to live in denser, more populated areas than Trump voters overall do — the types of places that elected Democrats to Congress in 2018.
Mary Kay Bennett, a life-long Republican who has never crossed the party line in a presidential election confesses she regrets her 2016 Trump vote "every day," and dismisses Mr. Trump's belief that "suburban housewives" would support his dog whistles about low-income housing in their neighborhoods.
No longer a member of the GOP, Bennett identified this way, now: "I'm an educated, suburban, white woman who worked all of her life and raised her children by working and taking care of the house. To call me a suburban housewife?" she pauses. "And the Black community is going to encroach on my neighborhood? If Black people can afford my neighborhood, you're welcome to live next door to me." The retired health care worker quipped she'll be voting in pearl earrings, a dress, lipstick, and heels … for Joe Biden.