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As pandemic upends presidential campaign, what issues matter most to voters

The planned summer conventions of both parties have been reduced and reimagined due to the coronavirus pandemic, rendering this election year different from any other. And of course millions of American lives have been upended due to COVID-19 and the recession. The Washington Post’s Gary Abernathy and freelance journalist Sarah Smarsh join Judy Woodruff to discuss what U.S. voters are thinking.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    At a fund-raising event today, Joe Biden told supporters that he hoped his decision to forego an in-person appearance at the Democratic National Convention would set an example. And I'm quoting: "From the start of the process, we have made it clear science matters," he said.

    The coronavirus has upended not only this presidential campaign season, but also millions of lives, in even the most rural parts of the country.

    For more on how voters outside the Beltway are thinking about the pandemic and its political ramifications, I'm joined by Gary Abernathy. He's in Hillsboro, Ohio. He's a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. And Sarah Smarsh, in Topeka, Kansas, she's a freelance journalist and author of the book "Heartland."

    Welcome to both of you. It's great to see you.

    Let's start, Sarah Smarsh, by talking about, what is on the minds of voters you're hearing from? The pandemic, the numbers were grim again today. Over 1, 300 deaths were reported overnight, something like 53,000 new cases in one day. But what are voters saying?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Well, here in my state of Kansas, this is one of the states where new cases is on the uptick, unfortunately.

    And in this region, just like across the country, I think it's certain that the pandemic is foremost on voters' minds. That, of course, is sort of twin issue with the economy, the present state of which we can't separate from the public health crisis.

    But, certainly, the pandemic and its ramifications is the talk on Main Street, as well as the stuff of local politics. We have had here in Kansas, which has a split party control of state government, a lot of back-and-forth, basically, battles between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, Democratic mayors and Republican-leaning counties.

    So it feels, I suspect, the way it feels in the rest of the country, which is like there's no federal leadership, and it's sort of a mess.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Gary Abernathy, what about where you are in, what is it, Southern Ohio?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Yes, Southern Ohio, Judy. And thanks for having me on.

    There may be a little different attitude here. People are talking about the pandemic. They take it seriously, but it's also an area where you're going to have a lot of people push back, worried about the violation of their constitutional rights.

    There's been a lot of pushback in this area on mandates from Governor DeWine about mask and so on, that type of thing, which, again, people take it seriously, but they also think that constitutional liberties have maybe been not taken as seriously they could.

    They don't like the idea they have been, you know, ordered not to go to work, been thrown out of work, the economy has been shut down. So, I think people here, their attitude is, treat us like adults, give us the information we should have, tell us what the health experts say, and then let us decide for ourselves how to deal with it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sarah Smarsh, Kansas, are you hearing any of that conversation with — the people you talk to? And how much are they connecting what's going on to what's happening in Washington?

  • Sarah Smarsh:


    Well, I think that, here, the controversy over whether, say, a mask is in order in these times certainly tracks along party lines. What I would say, you know, if I go to a farmer's market or somewhere, a public place of commerce, this is a state where a governor attempted to make a statewide mandate, and then there was pushback from other jurisdictions.

    And that was that sort of debate that I was referencing a moment ago. So, at the moment, you know, local places are sort of at the mercy of their local government.

    And what I would say is, for those who feel that a mask infringes upon their personal liberties in a way that outweighs their responsibility to their neighbors, that they are reliably conservative, and so that tells me that they are probably listening to messaging from Washington.

    On the other hand, I would say that that's not the same thing as saying all conservatives refuse to wear a mask. There's certainly been some, I think, kind of erosion of followship of the president, perhaps more for that reason.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to pick up on that with you, Gary, in terms of the economy and how people are seeing what's happened to the economy, the loss of jobs.

    To what extent do they connect it to decisions being made by President Trump, by Democrats?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    I think, again, keep in mind I'm in a part of the country that's very firm Trump country, so they see things in terms of maybe a little more of an effort of intentionally trying to hurt Trump through closing the economy.

    A few months ago, everyone agreed that the biggest thing Trump had going for him was a strong economy. And so the quick effort to kind of crash it, to turn it on its head, to throw people out of work is seen here by a lot of people, right or wrong, as an effort to hurt Trump.

    So, there's a resistance to that. On the other hand Judy, as has been reported elsewhere, in rural areas, we do see coronavirus cases rising. So people are starting to notice, well, OK, you know, it's a real thing. It's not just in the cities. It's coming to the rural areas, too.

    And I think the more that those numbers rise a little bit, a little less people will blame it all on a political effort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally to both of you.

    Sarah Smarsh, we are getting closer to the conventions, to honest-to-goodness election season. Joe Biden is staying put. He's not going to his convention. President Trump, apparently, isn't either.

    What are people — how much are they looking at the partisan divide right now and these two candidates?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Well, I can tell you that, in contrast to four years ago, during the election leading up to the 2016 casting of votes, I see fewer Trump signs, for whatever that's worth as a sort of qualitative measure along two-lane blacktop highways in rural Kansas, where I live, as well as in towns and cities.

    That doesn't mean that folks have swung left necessarily. I have seen a lot of signs for far right and certainly conservative-leaning candidates who are running for state offices or representatives offices.

    We actually just had a primary yesterday.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Sarah Smarsh:

    And the Republican candidate for our open — now open U.S. Senate seat, who was sort of favored by establishment Republicans over the more extremist Kris Kobach won, which is seen for a boon for Republicans in that race, against the Democrat, Barbara Bollier.

    But, ultimately, I do feel like things have shifted away from embracing Trump since 2016.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see, finally, Gary Abernathy, the Trump popularity and Joe Biden's presence now?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Well, I'm sure Sarah's right about maybe where she's at in certain parts of the country, but, right here, the enthusiasm is unabated, the signs are up, and have been for quite a while.

    The old "Make America Great Again" signs have been replaced by "Trump 2020" or "Keep America Great." People are very anxious and motivated. The enthusiasm level will be high here in Southern Ohio.

    And I think the decision by Vice President Biden so far to kind of run, if he was in the White House, you would call it a Rose Garden strategy, can't last for too much longer. I think the media will pressure him to come out more.

    But, right now, in areas where I'm at, it's not doing him any favors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we shall see. We're all watching all this with great interest, as you can imagine, as this very unusual election year unfolds.

    Gary Abernathy, Sarah Smarsh, thank you both so much.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Thank you. Thank you, Judy.

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