When Donald Trump swept Ohio in 2016 with the largest margin of any Republican since 1988, he won so convincingly that Democrats wondered whether the state was permanently off the swing map.
He won 80 of 88 counties here, including nine that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. His narrowest victory among those nine came in here in Montgomery County outside of Dayton, where he eked out a win with less than a percentage point.
But on the eve of Tuesday’s CNN/New York Times debate at Otterbein University, interviews with voters in this swing county suggest signs of electoral trouble for the commander in chief. Though Trump’s approval rating has been relatively steady nationally, in nearly two-dozen interviews, voters here – particularly independents – expressed growing unease about Trump’s actions, from his attempt to enlist help from Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival to his abrupt decision to abandon a key US ally in Syria, stunning leaders of his own party.
Melissa Curran, a 43-year-old independent from here in Huber Heights, was incredulous about the President’s request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“Why is he going outside the US to do that? If he’s got accusations, we have a criminal system here that he should have trusted,” she said. “But he’s fired so many people here who didn’t do what he wanted that I feel like we don’t have a voice anymore.”
More coverage ahead of the CNN/New York Times Democratic presidential debate
At the same time, voters feeling that agitation about Trump said they weren’t sure yet whether Democratic calls for impeachment are warranted. They were often quick to say they want to see more facts about whether the President did, in fact, pressure Ukraine to investigate 2020 rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.)
Notably, the sense of uncertainty for Trump in Ohio isn’t grounded in excitement about his Democratic rivals, but rather from eroding confidence in the president’s decision-making, and palpable disgust felt by female suburban voters like Curran, who has begun to believe that Trump is seeking absolute power.
Curran didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016 because she wasn’t motivated by either of them. But she now wants him out of the White House, even though she believes he’s done some “positive things” on the economy.
“If he would calm himself and humble himself, he could have been a great president, but the way he handles his business breaks my heart,” Curran told CNN.
She pointed to Trump’s shutdown over the federal government over border wall funding last December as an example of what she sees as his thirst for total control.
“Shutting down the government because he wanted to stomp his feet over this wall, I mean this is an Air Force town – so many people were affected by his tantrum,” said Curran, comparing his behavior to that of an “errant child.”
Curran plans to vote against Trump at the ballot box in 2020, but she is looking to the Democrats to lay out more facts on exactly what Trump’s intentions were with Ukraine: “Words are words. Impeaching somebody for their thoughts? Everybody in this world would be out if we just did it for our thoughts. I want to see the facts.”
“But would I re-elect him? Absolutely not,” she added. “No matter what, I will not put him back in office. I feel like he’s going to destroy this country bit by bit.”
Burden of proof
Recent national polling has shown something close to an even split among Americans on whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office. In a CNN poll in late September poll, after the House announced a formal inquiry, 47% of Americans supported those moves, up from 41% in May. The change over that time period was driven largely by independents and Republicans. Support for impeachment and removal among independents, who will be key to Trump’s chances of re-election, rose by 11 points. Among Republicans, it increased by 8 points.
It is not yet clear whether the release of the White House transcript of his call with Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky will be the tipping point in his presidency – or simply one more strike against him in a series of decisions that swing voters find troubling. But clearly the President himself has been dismayed by the poll numbers, lashing out on Twitter at Fox News after its new poll last week showed 51% of registered voters want him impeached and removed; and 51% also said his administration is more corrupt than previous administrations.
Interviews with voters here in Ohio largely reflected the uncertainty about impeachment nationally. While the Ukraine controversy pushed some over the edge toward impeachment, interviews here suggest that Democrats have not convincingly made the case to other voters that Trump’s Ukraine call is significantly different than the murky findings of the Russia investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
The uproar around the Russia investigation went on for so long that Republican-leaning-independent Tim Sartori said he just started to tune it all out.
“From the jump, it seems like people have been on him – it’s like they’re on a witch hunt,” said Sartori, a 55-year-old salesman, recalling the phrase that Trump repeatedly used to describe the Russia probe. “He’s cocky and he’s arrogant, but I’m not sure if this is more of the same,” he said of the Ukraine matter. He noted that, in his view, the Russia investigation yielded scant evidence of wrongdoing by Trump.
Sartori said he’s withholding judgment for now on impeachment.
“If the facts come out that he did something he shouldn’t have done, then yeah, my attitude would change on him, but right now it seems like they’re reaching,” he said. “To be honest, I heard about (the Ukraine call), but I don’t know exactly what he said.”
“I want to wait for the facts,” Sartori said. “If they actually get something, if it’s something that he did that he should be impeached for, then he should be impeached.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Sartori is keen on pulling the lever for one of the Democrats to be the next president: “There’s nobody I’ve seen who lights me on fire.”
Republican Wayne Furay, a 58-year-old bailiff from nearby Xenia (in neighboring Greene County, which Trump won) said he too is trying to sort through the Ukraine controversy and undecided about which way he’ll go in 2020.
He’s struggling with his reservations about Trump’s judgment and his dislike for Democrats’ negativity toward the president, along with the Democratic Party’s shift to the left.
Trump’s request to Ukraine for help investigating the Bidens “was probably a bad move,” Furay said. “But I don’t think it’s cause for that,” he said of impeachment. “Everything from the start has been noise.”
“I don’t like his demeanor. He says what he thinks, but he’s not very couth,” Furay said of Trump. “But it seems like kind of a witch hunt. They look for everything he does wrong, and it’s been like that from the beginning…. I don’t really like him that much, but I don’t really like any of the other ones, either.”
Lester Settlage, an 83-year-old retired farmer who voted for Trump, also expressed confusion about the interactions between Trump and Ukraine. Asked whether Trump deserves reelection, he gave the President high marks on the economy.
“I mean if you measure it by the stock market, the economy is booming. Look around,” Settlage said, gesturing to a packed parking lot outside Target in Montgomery County. “Look at all the cars here that are less than 3 years old.”
Thus far in the Ukraine investigation, Settlage doesn’t trust the motives of Democrats.
“I don’t know how to feel about it,” he said of Trump’s call with Ukraine, “because I’m not exactly sure what Ukraine knows. But Ukraine is an independent country. It’s no longer with Russia,” he said. “So what’s all the hullabaloo about? … Let’s get some policy work done.”
For voters who have paid closer attention to the President’s actions – and his words on the call – like Frederic Scheffler, an 83-year-old Republican from Centerville, Ohio, the Ukraine matter is yet another troubling development in string of erratic decisions that have raised questions about whether Trump has sound judgment.
Three years after voting for Trump, he’s considering voting for a Democrat in 2020—a surprise even to him.
Scheffler said Trump’s unpredictable and sometimes inexplicable actions have unnerved him, from Ukraine to Trump’s decision to pull back US troops in Syria, leaving longtime allies open to attack.
“He seems to be doing things independently without Congress. It’s disturbing,” said Scheffler.
Like other voters, he wants to see more facts about the President’s intentions in his dealings with Ukraine.
“If they can prove that he put pressure on Ukraine that would be one thing,” Scheffler said. But he doesn’t think impeachment would be good for the country – and notes that the President of Ukraine said there was no quid pro quo in his discussions with Trump.
For now, he’d rather register his disapproval at the polls next year. Unless the nominee is Elizabeth Warren, whose ideas he describes as expensive and “way out left.”
“It would have to be a moderate, not someone who’s way out there,” he said. “But who’s moderate?”