'So over to you America – which conversation are you going to have now? The one that keeps the President happy. Or the one that drives him mad.'

Hickory smoke, suburban moms, and gay Trump supporters

Emily Maitlis

Emily Maitlis reports from the midterm campaign trail on elections dominated by a man who is not even standing

04 November 2018 18:39

In the neat reductionism of electoral stereotypes, the one everyone is talking about for the 2018 midterms is ‘Suburban Mom’. She’s college-educated, affluent, perhaps fiscally-conservative but she finds Donald Trump personally a bit cringe. She holds the key to some really critical races. The problem is – no one knows quite how she’ll vote.

In 2016, it was easy to spot the Trump fans. They wore MAGA hats and ‘Deplorable Me’ T-shirts. They chanted things about swamps and prison. But having learnt the lesson of ‘listening to noise’, we’re now trying to unlearn it again. The conversations I had in Virginia this week were much more oblique. Diana, a grandmother, speaks to me of how she wants to see ‘equality for all people’. I assume at first she is a Democrat speaking about feminism. It takes three goes until I understand she is talking about men’s rights – à la Brett Kavanaugh – and she supports the president.

At an American Football game, I watch an attractive couple in their fifties cheer on their son. They look like the jock couple of their own sophomore year, and I ask the mum if she knows how she’s voting yet. ‘You betcha’ she tells me. But then says no more. Her husband, Rich, jumps in – half explaining, half berating me. ‘See, this is the thing. This is why pollsters and the media constantly get it all wrong. Because Republican women won’t say it out loud, but they know who they’re voting for, all right’. No one here has mentioned Trump by name.

One of the most interesting candidates standing in Virginia – Abigail Spanberger – describes herself as a Suburban Mom herself. She’s also a former CIA agent. When I ask which she finds dirtier, politics or espionage, she explains to me: ‘Somewhere between asking people to buy school cookies and asking them to spy, lies asking people for their vote – it’s been quite a learning curve.’

‘This is why pollsters and the media constantly get it all wrong. Because Republican women won’t say it out loud, but they know who they’re voting for, all right’

She’s standing against a Tea Party candidate – from the Freedom Caucus – who keeps getting her name wrong. In every town hall debate, Dave Brat checks her as ‘Nancy Pelosi’ – referencing the West coast liberal former Leader of the House. He knows that if he can spook the electorate into thinking she’s left-wing, the immaculate-lawn homeowners will freak out. Spanberger has learnt to keep her cards close to her chest. But then, spies are good at that.

She’s got the support of Virginia senator, Tim Kaine. He is affable and open when we meet, and it seems a lifetime ago that he stood at Hillary Clinton’s side as her vice-presidential running mate. Clinton is nowhere to be seen on the midterm trail. Trump is everywhere. I am reminded of that apocryphal Kissinger quote – ‘if I wanted to call Europe, who would I call?’ – and mangle it into my own for Tim Kaine: ‘If I wanted to call the Democrats, who would I call?’ He references new candidates, female candidates, black candidates, Muslim candidates, Latino candidates, gay candidates and trans candidates. But he still doesn’t come up with a name. I wonder if they feel the gap Obama left and no one has yet filled.

I still believe the Spanbergers of Virginia can swing these house races for the Democrats. But – in the words of Emily Dickinson – they must ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – success in circuit lies’. They won’t do it by shouting about socialism or Hillary. They’ll do it somewhere between baking cookies and asking colleagues to commit espionage for their country.

Next it’s on to Georgia – an hours flight south and a life away. The Deep South doesn’t see political upsets very often – its heart and recent history is a deep sonorous red. But this race is one of the hottest in the country right now. The Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, could make history if she’s elected next week, as the first black female governor the country has ever seen. Her NBFs have been in town – Oprah Winfrey first, Obama the next night – trying to rally the crowds of Atlanta. But she has a fight on her hands that even the most effective stump campaigning might not resolve. Thousands and thousands of residents have found themselves purged from the electoral register. And its disproportionately hit African American, Latino, and other minorities. Ones that tend to vote Democrat.

I wonder if the Democrats feel the gap Obama left and no one has yet filled.

Changes to electoral law have meant this attempt to ‘clean up’ the voter rolls, close polling stations, or demand exact match spelling on three forms of identification are all sanctioned by the state. I go in search of the official in charge to ask why it’s happening. But here’s where it gets complicated: the man who oversaw these changes is also…. the Republican Candidate for Governor, one Brian Kemp, who has everything to gain from keeping Democrats away from the booth.

He tries very hard not to give me an interview, but we doorstep him – outside a hickory smoke barbecue stop on his campaign trail (this is Georgia!) – to put accusations of voter suppression right to him. He tells me my accusation is ridiculous, that more people are voting than ever before – but doesn’t deny that thousands of names have been purged from the rolls. He’s upholding the law, he tells me, and orders me to ‘get your facts right, Ma’am’. But it is a law he himself has championed. And if he becomes Governor next week, he will have even more power to influence the next electoral changes that could keep him in office. Escher’s staircase – and my head is spinning.

Stephanie Cho, a Korean American in Atlanta, has lived all over the USA and has voted in several states. She’s never had the same problem voting as she has had here in Georgia.

She’s supporting those currently filing law suits against Brian Kemp at the legal organisation called ‘Asian Americans advancing Justice, Atlanta’.

‘Suddenly’ she explains ‘I understand the phrase “southern hospitality”. It means ‘you’re welcome here as our guest, and we will treat you very well. Just don’t ever think of staying’.

The reason voter suppression is such a hot topic now – aside from this neck and neck race in Georgia – is because of the way America is changing. A lot of the southern states, like Georgia, the Carolinas, Arizona and even Texas, are seeing an influx of younger, urban, non-white residents. And guess what, they are not traditional supporters of the Grand Old Party. There is, in other words, an existential threat to the powerbase in those traditional, republican states. They won’t flip tomorrow. But they are changing over time. And that’s why ‘adjustments’ to voter rolls and gerrymandering of districts are part of the longer-term strategy to stay in power.

From Georgia it’s onto Florida – and a Trump rally on the Gulf Coast. I meet Allison Hearn. She catches my eye because she looks like a Bernie Sanders supporter and I’m curious to speak to her. She’s a white middle aged, gay woman, who twice voted for Obama. She is, in other words, from the least likely demographic to ever, ever be at a Trump rally. But she’s been solidly behind him for three years. So much so that when she found out her partner had voted Hillary on election night 2016, they had one of the biggest bust-ups of their 16-year relationship. ‘How could she?’ She explains with anguish. ‘This is Florida, land of the hanging chad. Imagine!’

She flipped from Obama over the Iran deal – which she hated – and then starts talking to me about uranium sales. To be honest, that’s when she loses me. No one has ever talked to me about uranium on the campaign trail and I literally don’t have a response. But it’s a reminder that each time we reach for the clichéd demographic shorthand (‘Suburban mom’), there are many like Allison who simply will not fit in that box – and will shout, jack in the box style, to keep you from closing the lid.

Allison is from the least likely demographic to ever, ever be at a Trump rally. But she’s been solidly behind him for three years.

And after a whistle stop tour, we head back to DC to try and thread it all together into a picture. People keep asking what my gut is telling me – and it’s frankly offering me nothing uniform at all. There are nearly 500 races for the mid-terms – and each seems to be pulling a different string.

The trouble perhaps is this: Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot this time. But he thinks he is. He’s covering the entire country stumping and shouting, scaring people about migrants thousands of miles away and threatening to open fire on anyone who throws a stone.

And it’s working – in terms of TV coverage and airtime – the conversation is back on his ground. Whilst everyone’s debating immigration and criminals, rhetoric and violence, we’re talking about the stuff that keeps Trump happy and reminds his base what he’s for. The thing he doesn’t want to talk about is healthcare; because – as he’s made abundantly clear – he has no answer to the question and no solution to the problem. And it’s the number one priority for millions of Americans.

So over to you America – which conversation are you going to have now? The one that keeps the President happy. Or the one that drives him mad.

Emily Maitlis is one of the BBC’s most senior news journalists and a presenter for Newsnight.

'So over to you America – which conversation are you going to have now? The one that keeps the President happy. Or the one that drives him mad.'