I spent Election Day 1980 in eastern Baltimore County with Don Hutchinson, the Democratic county executive at the time, and we watched traditionally blue-collar, Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy Democrats of Dundalk, Sparrows Point, Essex and Middle River become Reagan Democrats.
Hutchinson sensed and feared early in the day what was happening: Voters were coming out in significant numbers to fire the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. High interest rates and inflation, 8% unemployment, spiking oil prices and the lingering Iran hostage crisis crushed Carter’s chances for reelection.
Republican Ronald Reagan carried 44 states. Maryland was not one of them, but his showing in eastern Baltimore County signaled the beginning of a trend of lunch-bucket Democrats toward Republicans.
Forty years later, in the same part of the county, I heard an echo of the question Reagan asked in his successful campaign to defeat Carter in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It came from a woman who wasn’t even born at the time of Reagan’s election, but she used the same quadrennial assessment to condemn the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump.
“The country is worse off than when he started four years ago,” said Shawana Spotwood, 37, married, mother of two kids and a resident of Middle River. It was about 7:30 a.m., and she was waiting in line to vote with about 150 other people at the Victory Villa Community Center. The long line of voters, almost all of them socially distanced, stretched along Compass Road, down a driveway and across a parking lot to the front door of the community center. It was the second day of early voting in Maryland. The morning wait to vote at Victory Villa was about 90 minutes.
Like others, Spotwood wore a face mask. She also wore a face shield. Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — the cause for the masks and shields — is most likely the main reason millions of other Americans have gone out early to vote in the hopes of making Democrat Joe Biden the next president.
Though a lot of Democrats decided in 2016 that they’d vote against Trump in 2020, no matter what, the incumbent’s intentional downplaying of the pandemic — along with his denigration of medical science and false claims about the endurance of the virus — have made matters worse and delayed economic recovery, putting his reelection deservedly in doubt.
“I mean,” Spotwood said, “I’m in sales and I can’t shake hands with anybody. I’m lucky, I haven’t lost my job, but …”
But more than 22 million jobs were lost after the virus arrived in the U.S. and took hold in spring. While many jobs have since been recovered, the Labor Department reported a 7.9% unemployment rate (about 12.6 million people unemployed) in September. More jobs were lost under Trump than under any president in his first 44 months in office, and that government measurement goes back to 1939. A recent study by researchers at Columbia University estimated that another 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since spring. With no further relief coming from Congress, the months ahead will be bleak for people who’ve already suffered financially.
And then, of course, there are all the deaths (more than 225,000 now), and the continuing threat to health, despite Trump’s repeated claims that the virus will soon vanish. “I won’t take my kids trick-or-treating for Halloween,” Spotwood said, mentioning another way the pandemic has affected the life of a suburban mom. “I’m afraid to go to the movies.”
In the presidential election four years ago, Spotwood was a registered independent who voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but without enthusiasm. She registered as a Democrat in 2018 and says she’s excited by Biden. “I like his message of unity,” she said. “It’s what the country needs. And [Biden running mate Kamala] Harris, I like her because she holds peoples' feet to the fire, she holds people accountable.”
In 2016, Spotwood told me, she understood why some people were attracted to Trump — he was an outsider, not a politician, and offered to shake up Washington. In fact, while Clinton took Maryland in 2016, Trump pulled votes from the formerly reliable Democratic precincts in eastern Baltimore County, performing far better there than he did statewide. “But,” Spotwood was quick to add, “I don’t understand how they can support him now.”
Fact is, the eastern end of the county has moved toward Republicans in local elections, and the once-robust manufacturing region became Trump country in 2016. So, while Spotwood and the union plumber behind her, James Ealy, planned to vote for Biden, certainly others in this end of the county will vote for Trump.
I asked Derrick Wilmerding why he supported Trump, and he immediately questioned Biden’s mental faculties, the same claim the 74-year-old Trump has made against the 77-year-old former vice president. I asked Wilmerding if Trump’s proclivity for the personal attack, for mocking and smearing others, didn’t give him pause about voting for the incumbent. “Just because you don’t like the way he talks about someone doesn’t mean he can’t lead the country in the right direction,” Wilmerding said.
I could have cited any of six polls showing less than 35% of Americans believe we’re going in the right direction. I could have brought up the horrible pandemic and the state of the economy. But the time for arguing is over. It’s time to vote.