NEWTON FALLS, Ohio — An hour after Kamala Harris was announced as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate last week, Dan Moore sat in his living room watching the Fox News coverage of her selection.
“I would’ve liked to see any other candidate for a V.P. than Kamala Harris; what’s that one woman’s name? Amy?” said Mr. Moore, a 60-year-old boiler operator at a steel plant just over the state line in Pennsylvania. “He was influenced to pick a Black woman. I don’t understand the reasoning behind Kamala Harris other than, from what we’re hearing right now, is that she knows how to debate.”
Before Donald J. Trump began his first presidential campaign, Mr. Moore was a reliable Democrat who had twice voted for Barack Obama. Like legions of white union workers, he found Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to shake up Washington appealing. He plans to vote for him again in November.
Two hours away in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Moore’s stepdaughter, Kelley Boorn, cheered Ms. Harris’s selection. A longtime Republican who was once a vehement anti-abortion activist, her views shifted after a difficult pregnancy. She went from being a one-issue voter and an enthusiastic backer of John McCain’s in 2008, to sitting out in 2012 to becoming an enthusiastic Democratic voter in 2016 and 2020.
“It’s hard waking up and realizing it’s not always black and white,” said Ms. Boorn, an Ohio State-educated chemical engineer, who left the work force to home-school her three sons.
As President Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for a second term at the party’s convention this week, Ms. Boorn and her stepfather represent two ships passing in the electoral waters. But what that political reordering will look like in November is uncertain. Well-educated suburbanites, especially women, are providing a powerful counter to Republican gains, as displayed in the 2018 midterms. Whether the defection of white working-class voters to Mr. Trump endures through the election will be crucial to determining whether Mr. Biden can retake states like Ohio.
Mr. Trump carried Ohio by eight percentage points in 2016 and the state had long been considered out of reach for the Democrats this year. But Ohio is now in play, polls show, and both campaigns have made major investments in television advertising in the state. The Biden campaign on Sunday announced it would begin airing a TV advertisement in Cleveland that focuses on Mr. Trump’s call for a boycott of the Goodyear tire company, which is based in nearby Akron.
The president won 54 percent of Ohio’s union households in 2016 — 17 percentage points better than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — exit polls showed. If he is going to win the state again, he needs voters like Mr. Moore to stick with him amid a sinking economy, the spiraling coronavirus crisis and a labor movement whose leadership backs Democratic candidates.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s re-election is imperiled by his cratering popularity among voters like Ms. Boorn who had either been apolitical or had long voted for Republicans.
In 2016, 56 percent of Ohio’s college-educated white women voted for Mr. Trump, according to exit polls. Two years later, when Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, won re-election, 59 percent of college-educated white women voted for him.
“We knew that in ’18 we’d have to win one out of seven Trump voters and we did,” Mr. Brown said in an interview. “We did it by running a campaign seen through the eyes of workers.”
Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat whose northeastern Ohio district includes Newton Falls, said the coronavirus crisis had thrust the choice for voters into sharp relief. “This election is going to be about handling a public health crisis and the economy,’’ he said, “so we just have to step into the void and I think there’s a heck of an opportunity for a political realignment with these suburban voters.”
The first time Mr. Trump ran for president, the interactions between Mr. Moore and Ms. Boorn were tense and fraught, marked by fighting. Ms. Boorn was upset and scared, while Mr. Moore was exultant about Mr. Trump’s rise. Though he had never been political, he volunteered for the Trump campaign in Trumbull County and was selected in early 2017 to host a dinner at his home for Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, when he wanted to meet Trump voters during his cross-country tour to get to know America better.
Ms. Boorn was apprehensive, worried about climate change, about what her sons were learning by growing up white in America. Now she is worried about the prospect of four more years with Mr. Trump in the White House.
“My husband and I both grew up in northeast Ohio and it’s rural,” she said. “There are people who are openly racist. Coming down to Columbus, we made friends with people of all colors and all religions and it’s so hard to tell people who don’t see that these are just people — it’s not what you see on Fox News.”
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which wreaked havoc on the state’s economy, while protests against police treatment of Black Americans took place in cities both large and small. Mr. Moore complained on his Facebook profile page about being forced to wear a mask at work, while Ms. Boorn put a Black Lives Matter sign on her car.
“It’s hard raising white men in America,” she said of her three boys, ages 8, 5 and 16 months. “You want to understand that they understand their position as an ally.”
So when Mr. Moore went to visit in Columbus this summer, the whole family sat together to watch two movies on Netflix: “13th,” the documentary about racial inequities in the American criminal justice system, and “Just Mercy,” a real-life legal drama about a Black Alabama man imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit.
“It’s kind of like you’re sitting there watching things and like, even I had no idea,” Mr. Moore said, watching one of the three TV’s in his house that were tuned to Fox News at that moment. “It’s like we need to talk about this more, you know? Just gathering bits and pieces of information, even before George Floyd.”
He added: “I have Black friends and they told me about something that happens pretty regularly, even today in some of your larger cities, called gentrification. Never heard the word before.”
Mr. Moore said he believed that Mr. Trump had made great strides on improving race relations and prison reform — he praised the White House meeting with Kanye West, whom the president’s allies are trying to get on state ballots to siphon votes away from Mr. Biden.
He also believes that Mr. Trump’s political rivals are exaggerating the economic damage from the pandemic to hurt the president in the November election.
“Are there some Democrats out there who maybe were saying, ‘We’re not going to go back to work until the election?’” Mr. Moore said. “You got to look at the level of hatred towards President Trump, and there’s people who don’t want him to have a second term.’’
Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, which covers the booming suburbs north of Columbus and a handful of counties in central Ohio, was drawn to be a Republican district by the G.O.P.-controlled state legislature after the 2010 census. The district backed Mitt Romney by 10.5 points in 2012 and Mr. Trump by 11.3 points in 2016.
By 2018, however, the district’s suburban voters had eroded the Republican advantage. An August special election that year to replace Pat Tiberi, a Republican who had resigned the seat, was decided by just 1,564 votes. In the November midterm elections, the Republican candidate, Troy Balderson, beat Danny O’Connor, a Democrat, by only four percentage points.
“There are a lot of folks who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for me and are voting for Joe Biden,” Mr. O’Connor said, referring to the closeness of his 2018 loss. “I cannot imagine people who voted for me not voting for Joe Biden.”
Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton put it more succinctly: “White educated voters, I can’t find a single one of them that’s voting for Trump,” she said, adding for emphasis, “These are long-term Republicans.”
But voters like Mr. Moore have stuck with Mr. Trump. Mark Johnson, the president of the Tri-State Building & Construction Trades Council, a group of unions representing workers in southern Ohio, said about 70 percent of his members were backing the president for re-election. The are practical reasons, he said, citing Mr. Trump’s promotion of coal mining, which is prevalent in Southeastern Ohio, and tariffs on imports. But he also said there is an attraction to Mr. Trump’s style, a phenomenon that has made his campaign something of a lifestyle brand in rural white communities.
“Trump relates to the male over-40 crowd and that’s who I represent,” Mr. Johnson said.
“We went from bright blue to purple to bright red,” he added. ”We’re not just buying into the new green deal. Solar panels doesn’t create new jobs for coal miners.”
Last week Ms. Boorn watched most of the virtual Democratic National Convention. She was inspired by Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old whom Mr. Biden helped deal with a severe stutter, and was moved by Ms. Harris’s stories of her upbringing in the civil rights movement.
“She inspired me when she said that someday we will look back at this time and remember what we did, not what we thought,” she said. “That’s what pushed me out of my comfort zone previously. I want my boys to remember this.”
Mr. Moore watched only Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech, which he said the former vice president “read pretty well from the teleprompter.” He has been consumed with a looming strike at NLMK Pennsylvania, the steel plant where he works. He received instructions from the United Steelworks union about how to petition banks and utilities for leniency during an extended work stoppage.
He said his support for Mr. Trump remained “locked in,” but he lamented that he had not heard much lately from either political party about limiting the power of companies to threaten employees’ health care or drastically increase their premiums.
“I voted for President Trump, yeah, but I’m very opposed to corporate greed,” he said. “A lot of Republicans don’t want to talk about that, but it’s very real to me.”
Rachel Shorey contributed research.