ROCA, Neb.—Elaine Dlouhy calls herself a “crazy crafting woman,” adopted a dog named Spinks during the pandemic and has been married to the same man for 30 years. They put off an August anniversary trip to Belize or Costa Rica when the pandemic hit. “My husband and I both look like heart attacks waiting to happen (we like beer) but we really enjoy hiking and bike riding,” she said. Like a lot of people in Nebraska’s capital, in 2016 she cast a ballot for Donald Trump.
Trump’s oratory left something to be desired, she remembers thinking back then, but she reasoned his brashness was likely born from years as a businessman—experience she thought would translate to strong leadership and sound economic decisions. He might not have been her ideal candidate, but she assumed Trump would surround himself with “good people” like both George Bushes had done.
It didn’t take long for her to discover—to her horror—her assumptions were wrong. Within just a few months, Dlouhy lost count of the shocking things the president had said, and she noticed he had begun to alienate any advisers who disagreed with him. The president who had said on the campaign trail that the world was laughing at the United States was, she realized, embarrassing the nation on the world stage.
“Every time he opens his mouth, it is a cringeworthy moment for the world. I don’t know how to say that in a nice way,” Dlouhy told me last month.
As a Nebraska native, I’d been picking up signals in recent months from my conservative family and friends that they’re uncertain how they’ll vote this November. And when I’ve asked why, they said they are simply appalled. I wasn’t surprised, but it didn’t match up with the narrative of diehard Trump voters dominating the 2020 coverage. So, on an extended trip back home, I decided to see just how widespread this sentiment was. I asked legislators I knew from my years covering the statehouse, and they had no trouble pointing me to constituents, which is how I found Elaine Dlouhy, a 57-year-old client services manager at a Lincoln staffing agency who is now planning to vote for Joe Biden. She’s hesitant about the Democrat’s stance on late-pregnancy abortion, but that’s not enough to dissuade her.
“It’s comical and it’s embarrassing,” she said of the current commander in chief. “I used to try to support him, to see something good in something he said. I can’t do that anymore.”
In this volatile and unpredictable election cycle, pundits have obsessed over slices of the Republican electorate they believe could decide the outcome in November—the vaunted college-educated suburban women, for example, and less-educated blue-collar men. But there’s a group of voters, scattered across the vast American interior, that has gotten almost no attention at all and might be just as decisive in November. They live in states so reliably red that no one from either party generally pays them much attention. Nebraska went for Trump in 2016 by 25 percentage points and will almost certainly do so again this November; indeed, the last time the state voted for a Democrat, it was for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
But their distaste might be a telling indicator of why Trump is floundering in polls across the country. It isn’t necessarily about a policy or a broken promise, it’s about Trump as a person. Trump’s bare-knuckled personality—which was on full display at the Tuesday debate—has been his calling card. He has said things that no one else dares, and his base loves him for it. But for this group of former supporters, Trump’s personality has become his biggest liability.
I spent a month in my home state trying to learn what Nebraskans believe is at the roots of defections like Dlouhy’s. Why are conservatives like her quietly questioning whether they can cast a presidential vote in good conscience? In so many ways, their views haven’t changed—they are still passionately pro-life, and they remain suspicious that Democrats will reach too far into their lives and pocketbooks. But they believe equally that their highest elected official must display a sense of decorum worthy of the White House.
Very simply, Trump offends a deeply ingrained culture of politeness and compromise that, until recently, earned Cornhuskers the very vanilla tourism slogan “Nebraska Nice.” They are generally not on the news screaming at protesters, waving confederate flags or brandishing firearms wildly. At its core, Nebraska Nice isn’t so much a syrupy sweetness but rather a shared aversion to petty and therefore unproductive conflict.
“These folks are not political ideologues. They march in the March for Life, they vote Republican, but they are not enamored by the kind of identity politics that Trump brings,” said Max Mueller, a classics and religious studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has written about his personal struggle to live out his Christianity in a moment of heightened political division. “They just want things to get back to normal—in some ways like I do. We all want to get to a place where we don’t have to think about what the president does every day.”
Progressive Democrats on the coasts might expect a break with the president to be driven by disagreements over Trump administration policies that have enraged and animated their own opposition—immigration, climate change, for example. But the discrepancy—between a culture of polite coolness and a president who tweets out political punches all day in all caps—is more rooted in the foundational moral principles of a state where more than half of adult residents rank as “highly religious” and many adhere to an ethic of commonsense collaboration that persists, in part, due to a collective memory from when their forebears worked together to survive harsh Great Plains winters.
Erik Miller, 36, describes himself as somewhat conservative with a libertarian lean. He is, he said, “totally down” for much of Trump’s policy agenda. But he’s unsure if he’ll vote for either candidate. The “us versus them” rhetoric he has heard from Trump—even more than the lies, affairs or cover-ups that have emerged during the Trump administration—is hard to justify to the family he’s building in Lincoln.
“I get that politics can be dirty,” he said. “But it’s the bullying and the ‘winning’ that bothers me, because that’s a hard one to explain to my kids.”
Miller, who has spent several years involved in Christian college campus ministries, is wary of concepts he’s hearing from Biden like a new, national Medicare plan or a federal mask mandate, but he doesn’t know how he can preach traits like respect and compromise to his five children, ages 4 through 11, if he supports Trump for another term.
“Am I, by November, going to be cool with separating the personal from the policy?” he asked. “Am I OK with sitting down with my family and saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re on board with this guy [Trump] … but we’re going to ignore—just set aside—all the other things? That might be a little bit tricky.”
In Nebraska, adherence to Republican precepts is so common that it would seem a “shy voter” is more likely to be quiet about supporting Biden than Trump. That sentiment generally grows stronger the further west you drive from the two largest cities of Omaha and Lincoln, across dizzying miles of sandhills and cornfields that stretch hundreds of miles to an endless horizon.
So it doesn’t make much sense for anyone uncertain about another four years of a Trump administration to make waves by announcing it out loud, said Robert Joseph. Joseph owns Peppermill & E.K. Valentine Lounge (2013 winner of Nebraska Beef Council’s coveted “Best Burger” award) in Valentine, a north-central town of about 2,700 in cattle country that is well known as a launching point for a lazy day of drunken rafting down the Niobrara River. His customers certainly don’t want to hear it.
“If I had a Biden sign, they absolutely wouldn’t come,” Joseph told me. “I could never do anything in the restaurant but answer people’s questions [about politics]. I know that because the first Biden sign went up, and it is the biggest, silliest topic of conversation in town.”
While people might still be wary of announcing their support for Biden, some are nevertheless beginning to find it easier to describe their dissatisfaction with Trump.
Joseph, 42, doesn’t like the way Trump has emboldened his community to talk divisively about minority groups—especially on Facebook. To him it seems counterintuitive because the town has a tangled but symbiotic relationship with the Rosebud Indian Reservation, roughly 10 miles north of town and just over the South Dakota border.
“There’s been race tension all the time—we know how to deal with it,” Joseph said. “But the way that people are willing to speak out against African Americans is shocking to me, when many of them, maybe, haven’t even met an African American person for a while.”
Joseph, too, is feeling a nudge from his future self; he leans conservative libertarian, he said, but doesn’t want to have to confess to his children, currently 8 and 3, that he voted for Trump in 2020.
“Through the whole Trump presidency, I’ve raised a kid to 8 years old. I’m here to tell you, I just think he’s the sweetest, nicest, most empathetic young man,” he said. “And the problems I have with Trump are exactly in opposition to how I’ve raised him, whether it’s discipline in what you say and what you do or teaching kids to admit when they’re wrong.”
He doesn’t have a problem voting for a Democrat but said he finds it absurd that Democrats, “in an election with these kinds of consequences,” chose Biden. “I don’t think that any weird leftist army is going to turn us into a socialist country. I just think he’s a poor candidate.”
He is personally friendly with members of the congressional delegation, such as Republican Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, who have stopped into the restaurant over the years. But he’s “appalled by the senators cowing” to Trump’s whims, he said. He hopes that a Biden presidency might persuade some of them to embrace a spirit of bipartisanship, and that in time a conservative party might survive Trump and produce a candidate he’d support.
Even in the most Western part of the state—just across the border from Wyoming—it’s possible to find hints of the same discontent. In Chadron, 27-year-old Jacob Rissler isn’t hearing other Republicans talk about what he sees as clear concerns conservatives should have with Trump. The close-knit community and college town of about 6,000 is largely agricultural—a place where ranching gets you by, but maybe doesn’t get you rich, meaning everyone works hard and makes the most with what they have.
Rissler said he is confused that his friends, family and neighbors aren’t more upset about the tariffs taking a scalpel to their farming livelihoods. Last year, the state’s farm bureau estimated Nebraska would lose about $1 billion from retaliatory tariffs from Trump’s trade wars. That’s not the fiscal responsibility that drew him to the party, he said.
“To me, this is not what traditional conservatism is,” Rissler said.
In college a few years back, Rissler was president of the Chadron State College Republicans. He was worried about Trump’s “character” on the campaign trail and wrote in Jeb Bush on his 2016 ballot. But he realized a couple years into the administration that Trump—and by extension the Republican Party—was no longer open to new ideas or disagreement. He’s voting for Joe Biden this November.
“This kind of sucks because sometimes I feel like I’m on an island,” Rissler said. “Most of the people I knew in the College Republicans are full-throated supporters of him [Trump] still, and I have just learned ‘I’m not going to talk to you about it.’”
Rissler, who is Roman Catholic, was grateful a moderate Democrat like Biden got the nomination—there weren’t any others in the crowded field he would have crossed a party line for. And while he disagrees with Biden on a couple issues, primarily abortion, it doesn’t compare to the multiple frustrations he has with Trump.
This makes him something of an outlier. For the state’s religious voters, abortion can be the beginning and end of any conversation about national politics. The reasons are myriad: a thriving evangelical community, an emphasis on large families, and the fact that the Lincoln diocese is considered one of the most conservative in the nation. Even the strictest anti-abortion views aren’t necessarily bad politics: Five state senators this year said abortion shouldn’t be allowed even to save a mother’s life.
Concerns that the former vice president has become over the years—and even during the current campaign—more expansive in his views on abortion could prevent Trump defectors from driving up too many additional votes for Biden, said Mueller, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln religious studies professor.
“They see what a lot of people see is blatantly obvious: [Trump] is a threat to democracy, he demonizes the other, he’s a racist, he’s a bully, he’s corrupt,” Mueller said. “But in the end, most or all of them are one-issue voters and that’s abortion.”
There’s another reason beside politeness that Nebraskans generally avoid talking about national politics: In the center of the country, Washington seems far less consequential than state and local governments, where farmers and suburbanites alike know the most important decisions about their property taxes—higher by far than the national average—are calculated. In most counties, a presidential vote is largely symbolic.
But this year in Omaha, the presidential votes could matter quite a bit.
Nebraska, which has three congressional districts, is one of two states (Maine is the other) to split its electoral votes. The biggest district is the 3rd, which covers most of the state—and most of its farmers. The 1st covers most of eastern Nebraska, including Lincoln, and is only a shade less red than the 3rd. But the tiny 2nd district, which is composed almost entirely of the city limits of Omaha and the two counties around it, has so many Democrats it earned the nickname “Obamaha” in 2008, when it added a single electoral vote to Barack Obama’s landslide 2008 victory.
Though it still leans Republican by about 4 percentage points, there are some scenarios this year in which the 2nd is the deciding factor in a presidential race that is tied in the Electoral College. Cook Political Report currently has the 2nd as “Lean Democrat.” The district is flippable for Biden, according to Cook’s Dave Wasserman, because it has the highest percentage of whites with college degrees, a group that holds promise for Biden.
The mood of the district, which counts 164,254 Republicans to 159,102 Democrats and 109,227 nonpartisan voters, is reflected in the razor-thin polling margins for the rematch between Republican incumbent Rep. Don Bacon and his 2018 challenger, nonprofit executive Kara Eastman.
Eastman, who lost by just 2 points in 2018, this year has the national backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after rebuilding bridges that were burned with her campaign’s criticisms of the organization’s effectiveness during the previous cycle. But her strategy has also shifted to wooing the Nebraska Nice voter, a switch from 2018, when she embraced a progressive agenda to excite new voters. This year, she’s distinguished herself with independents and disenfranchised Republicans, she said in an interview, all while tying Bacon to Trump in the ways she believes are already causing voters to stray from the GOP.
“The Republican Party used to be the party of fiscal responsibility, environmentalism, family values. That is all gone out the window with Donald Trump,” she said. “There are Republicans out there that are tired of the rhetoric that keeps coming out of the White House; they feel like Trump doesn’t represent things that are important pieces of not just the Republican Party, but American values.”
Some summer polls have Biden leading Trump by as many as 7 points in NE-2, with Eastman and Bacon within 1 or 2 points of each other. Both Eastman and Biden will likely depend on suburban turnout in the metro areas of Douglas and Sarpy counties, where an abundance of jobs (at least before the pandemic) has drawn large numbers of Hispanic immigrants. And that’s generally meant more Democrats: The past two years, registered Democrats in Douglas County, which makes up most of the district, have jumped from outnumbering Republicans by 5,285 to 11,014.
Pat Borchers, 58, a law professor at Creighton University in Omaha, is one of those newly registered Democrats.
Borchers heartily supports Biden, he said, but “up until 2016 was playing for the other team.” He ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Legislature as a Republican in 2016 but held his nose and voted for Hillary Clinton. He had stayed a registered Republican—hoping the Republican Party would “rediscover its soul”—until this May.
“I’m not on the fence at all,” Borchers said. “It’s been kind of a long journey, but Trump’s handling of the pandemic has just been worse than awful and the racist dog whistles—they’re like racist bullhorns—just disgust me so much.”
He believes his district could provide an early indicator in an election where vote counting drags on for days, even weeks.
“By midnight or so on Nov. 3, the results are going to be pretty complete in NE-2,” he said. “And if Biden carries NE-2, Trump’s lost.”
In the summer of 2019, two mass shootings happened within hours of each other in places hundreds of miles from Nebraska. In El Paso, Texas, a gunman who killed 22 people at a Walmart store was charged with federal hate crimes for targeting people of Mexican heritage. Then, in Dayton, Ohio, a man shot and killed nine people outside a bar. Shortly afterward, in Omaha, a Republican state senator took to social media. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” John McCollister tweeted. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”
Over the years, McCollister has frequently crossed traditional party lines for larger issues with moral or economic arguments, like eliminating the state’s death penalty in 2015 or ending the state’s ban on driver licenses for DACA recipients. But he had never taken on his party or its leader so directly.
“We have a Republican president who continually stokes racist fears in his base. He calls certain countries ‘sh*tholes,’ tells women of color to ‘go back’ to where they came from and lies more than he tells the truth,” McCollister continued in a multi-tweet barrage. “We have Republican senators and representatives who look the other way and say nothing for fear that it will negatively affect their elections. No more.”
His tweets received hundreds of thousands of likes and tens of thousands of retweets. He was at a conference in Nashville as his tweets went viral; he recruited his son to help him navigate a short national media tour. The reception at home was not as a warm. The state party leadership asked him to leave. He refused. A year later, he’s still at war with his party. McCollister estimates 10 to 15 percent of the communications he gets from constituents are Republicans who feel the same way, though his staff said the opposition mail is equal or greater in volume.
“I’m not looking to make publicity—I’m a term-limited, relatively obscure state senator from Nebraska,” McCollister told me by phone last month. “That tweet—what did it have? 16 million impressions? I was one of the first to call out Donald Trump for being a racist. But since that time, a good number of Republicans have joined the group, including Chuck Hagel, Colin Powell, [John] Kasich, and I’m not the voice in the wilderness anymore.”
So what does that mean for you this November, as a politician? I asked, after the Republican laid out his frustrations with the state and national branches of the GOP.
“You mean how am I going to vote?” McCollister asked, after a brief pause. “Well, I’m going to vote for Joe Biden, for sure. And it’s not even a close contest for me. Donald Trump has just in so many ways bankrupted the country.” (Hours after we spoke, McCollister’s public endorsement of Biden went nearly as viral as his tweets on white supremacy.)
McCollister doesn’t know what’s next for Republicans at the federal or state level (“you’ll have to call me Nov. 4”), but he’s convinced that the Republican Party under Trump is a departure from decency and that it might be having a corrosive effect on norms of governing closer to home. He’s concerned, he told me, the nominally nonpartisan state Legislature is losing its handful of centrists, like himself, that allow Nebraska’s unicameral body to succeed, albeit slowly.
The body of 49 nonpartisan senators (all limited to two terms) is in many ways a symbol of an ideal governmental format in the eyes of some Nebraskans. It is neither quick nor efficient—each bill, with the exception of some technical bills, gets a public hearing and a maximum three rounds of voting (which includes the potential for three rounds of filibusters). There are no party leaders whipping votes, and accomplishing anything takes intentional across-the-aisle compromise where no one leaves entirely happy. While most senators largely stick to party lines and hear from their constituents if they don’t, a last-minute change of heart vote—even if it’s on the third vote—is neither uncommon nor disparaged.
That’s not to say Nebraskans aren’t polarized or carry wildly different opinions about what’s best for the collective good, but they have historically been more open to the idea of an inch-by-inch accomplishment toward common goals.
“Nebraskans on balance are not big fans of being confrontational people. We have so few people, part of the culture is: You better work to get along with your neighbors because they’re all you’ve got,” said Kirk Brown, the now-retired attorney who handled Nebraska’s death penalty litigation on behalf of the state for 30 years. “Your barn catches on fire? You need neighbors and you don’t want to spend your whole life pissing people off because you might need them. Frankly, I’m very comfortable with that.”
Brown, 72, left the Republican Party in 2017. What he saw happening in the executive branch in Washington was the political equivalent of a barn fire, and neither party in Congress—which he believes is constitutionally responsible to slow presidential action—was working to put out the flames. Brown said he is concerned about the long-term state of both parties, because he doesn’t just see differences of opinions on how to accomplish common goals—he doesn’t see people willing to set common goals at all.
“Although I am not a person particularly famous for my willingness to compromise, I’d be the first to say I think the whole theory of American government is not the rule of like mind, but that we continue to function because we find ways to compromise on difficult issues,” Brown said. “If you start with the issue and the person advocating that issue, saying they’re wrong, you’ve left yourself room to compromise. But if in the opening gambit, you say the issue and the person in favor of it is evil, you have nowhere to go.”
“My entire life, Democrats could never convince me I was a Democrat. It took the Republicans to convince me I wasn’t a Republican anymore. The Democrats couldn’t do it, but the Republicans managed to in the end.”
The next generation of conservative political junkies aren’t any more optimistic either.
Grahm Peschel, 21, wasn’t old enough to vote in 2016 but said he would have supported Trump to keep Clinton out of the White House. He’s been involved in state and local campaigns since he was 14 and worked for Republican Rep. Don Bacon in 2018. This November, the geography major at University of Nebraska-Omaha said he might write in his own name.
It was about year two of the Trump administration when Peschel started to realize he couldn’t support Trump.
“All of the rude, disrespectful and inappropriate comments that he’s made during the presidency really started coming to light for me, because I wasn’t paying attention to them before he was elected,” he said.
Peschel said he doesn’t think Trump has fulfilled campaign promises that initially drew conservative voters: Mexico is not paying for a wall, Planned Parenthood is not being sufficiently defunded and Peschel doesn’t believe the 2017 tax bill did enough for the middle class. But, for Peschel, those policy failures pale in comparison to Trump’s failure as a leader.
“The most important issue for me in politics is not an actual political issue,” he said. “I just don’t see Trump pushing a unity viewpoint to the American people. I see him dividing us in every way he can. In his eyes, Democrats are evil people and hate America. And I don’t believe that. They are just people who look at things from a slightly different perspective than me.”
The first person who told me confidently that Trump would win the 2016 election was the bartender at a steakhouse and golf course on the outskirts of Lincoln where I picked up waitressing shifts in between reporting jobs.
It was late in 2015, and I scoffed when Scott Hayes said “Donald Trump will be our next president” one night as he snuck me pours of wine and quizzed me on the tannins I detected. But Hayes, 60, a native Nebraskan who has worked up and down the East Coast, knows the pulse of a community is best read by those who see its businessmen, golfers and football fans when their inhibitions are diluted by alcohol. At the time, that was the exact crowd Hayes said was excited by Trump’s pitches for a strong economy and small business growth. Part of that was a curiosity about whether an “anti-establishment” candidate could disrupt the political system in a positive way. “They said, ‘Let’s just vote for him and see how crazy it can be.’” Hayes said.
I dropped by the Wilderness Ridge recently to see if Hayes was hearing some of the same rumblings of discontent that I was picking up. In between sending rounds of white wine and Bud Light to his tables of barely socially distanced regulars, he said he still sees and serves the Trump fans and believes the base will turn out in full force. But there’s something else at play, he told me. The peripheral voters he’s seen in Nebraska—those who might judge a candidate on merits rather than strict party line—aren’t inclined to ignore their misgivings.
“The luster has worn off. People have seen it, and it’s not that pretty,” he said. “I think there’s some Trump supporters who in secret will go ‘Yeah I can’t.’ Once they get in that voting booth they’ll realize ‘Yeah, not him.’”
He offered me another prediction: “Biden all the way.”