The far-right groups triggering violence at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests helped associate BLM with mayhem and spin the media image of the movement into a narrative of chaos and violence in the minds of many independent voters. Donald Trump attempted a similar trick in Portland with a bastardized version of the Nixonian law and order strategy marinated with a bit of Willie Horton. And when many voters view images of the disorder on the news and social media, they are unaware of findings from say, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, or the University of Chicago’s Project on Security that document the patterns of the far right instigating violence at BLM protests, even before the death of George Floyd.
Consider Paul Anderson of Jasper County, Iowa. The BLM protests are one thing that leads him to differ with his political hero, Black Lives Matter ally Bernie Sanders. When the white, 40-year-old owner of a printing company watched the local and national coverage of protests last month, he arrived at one conclusion about BLM: “It’s just a bunch of hoodlums,” he says. But don’t start cheering yet if you’re a Trump supporter: Anderson vows not to vote for Trump and boasts that he has always voted for a winner since his first presidential election in 2000—Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama and Trump. He calls Trump “an idiot who has spent his term trying to undo everything Obama has done”—but says “I don’t know if I can vote for Biden either. I might just not be able to vote for either of them. I would have voted for Bernie or Warren…”
Those topsy-turvy partisan habits of swing voters have become more mysterious and unpredictable, especially as the conversations on race have come to town. Anderson was born and raised in Jasper County, which, judging from the last three elections, is abundant with swing voters like him. So is neighboring Marshall County, where Democrat Steve Sodders, 51, a white former state senator and county sheriff’s deputy, now serves as mayor of the town of State Center. Sodders, who caucused for Barack Obama in 2008, takes pride in his county and state’s roles in Obama’s historic campaign, both in the caucuses and in the general elections in 2008 and 2012. Yet Sodder’s hometown pride slows a bit considering 2016, when Trump carried Marshall County and voters dumped Sodders for a Republican in his state senate race. Across the country, there are 230 Obama-Trump counties like Marshall and Jasper that backed Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went with Trump in 2016. Iowa has 31 such counties, the most of any state.