The Undecided Women of Bucks County

Everybody loves Lynne. At least, that’s what all of her friends kept telling me last week, as they filed through Lynne’s front door in the Philadelphia suburbs, and sipped chardonnay in her crowded kitchen. When you meet her, you see why. Lynne Kelleher, a 66-year-old Bucks County Realtor, is utterly charming. Her pointed questions take you by surprise, and her impressive range of swear words makes you laugh until you snort.

Kelleher’s magnetism is why I reached out to her in the first place. Through her work and the local charity group she founded, she has more friends than she can count. Pennsylvania will again be one of a handful of battleground states that will determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, and I’d been searching for women in the area to discuss that with. Kelleher was the ideal person to convene my own personal focus group of educated suburbanites, a crucial segment of the electorate that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are competing for in November. The problem for the two candidates: None of these women likes either of them.

I’d already assumed as much, based on poll numbers. But these suburbanites disliked their options with an intensity that was almost startling. If other swing-state voters feel similarly, the long-ordained Trump-Biden rematch could be even more volatile than expected.

Last week, Kelleher invited me to talk politics over wine and pizza with her and seven of her friends. The group, which ranged in age from 37 to 69, was not a scientifically representative sample: Everyone was white, and most either inclined to the center or leaned right. All were frankly disgusted with their current choices: Trump is repugnant, the women agreed, while most of them viewed Biden as ancient and incoherent. (“Believe it or not, I’m hoping one of them drops dead” before the election, one told me.)

Trump has long struggled to attract suburban women, and Biden’s lead among women generally is narrower with this demographic. At this point, seven months out, Bucks County Woman is not looking like an easy get for either party. About half of Kelleher’s circle told me they were casting about for an alternative. A few of them had either settled on or were curious about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the onetime Democrat who is now running as an independent. “I need to check out Kennedy further,” one woman said, at the end. “I’m starting to go, ‘Whoa! There’s another option here?’”

portrait of Lynne Kelleher
Lynne Kelleher, 66, stands for a portrait in Churchville, PA, on Thursday, March 28 2024. (Hannah Yoon for The Atlantic)

Kelleher’s living room is painted bright turquoise, and the chairs are upholstered in orange paisley. The legs of her hall table, displaying vintage pillbox hats, end in gold high heels. You get the picture. The women sat in a circle, munching on pizza and getting a little tipsy, until the time came for me to ruin the mood: “So, how are we all feeling about the election?”

The answer was a resounding Not great. “I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I am so disturbed by the political climate in this country,” Kelleher said. (She’d voted for Trump in 2016, but, disgusted by his behavior, switched her vote to Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate, in 2020.) “We’ve lost our center,” added Georganne Ford, a 64-year-old career coach sitting next to her, who voted for Trump in 2020. “I think about what’s written on our coins, ‘In God We Trust.’ We’ve lost that.”

Tara, who is in her early 60s and asked to use her first name only for privacy reasons, sighed. “This is the best the United States can do?” she asked. “That we have no viable candidate other than Biden and Trump? It’s sad.”

Kelleher and her friends are the kind of well-educated, well-dressed women you’d expect to find in this affluent suburb north of Philadelphia. Some wore heels; many had fresh manicures. Most of them had voted Republican before Trump; some also voted for Trump. But they’ve been disappointed by what they believe Trump has brought to American politics: a lack of civility and never-ending culture wars that have seeped into school-board meetings and interactions with neighbors.

Suddenly, “it’s okay to do the name-calling; it’s okay to say things that are blatantly untrue,” Kelleher said. Trump “gives those people that have been living under rocks permission to come out and see the light.” January 6 was a national nightmare, they agreed. They had been relieved when Republican leaders criticized the former president. “And then the subsequent day, you hear all those—pardon my French—pussies backpedal from it,” Kelleher said.

“That’s the problem with Trump; he’s a bully,” Tara said.

Democracy won’t go away if Trump wins, said Laura Henderson, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom who voted for Biden in 2020, but she believes it’s on the ballot in November because Trump sees himself as a “supreme ruler.” “He’s a Putin lover,” Kelleher said. “He would like it to be him on horseback without a shirt on.” Tina, who also declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, saw Trump’s foreign policy differently; she’d voted for him in 2020 and felt his leadership style was effective, if crude. “He’s so freakin’ crazy that everyone’s afraid of him,” she said.

Several of the women gave Trump credit on domestic issues: Things didn’t cost so much when he was president, they argue, and small businesses were doing better. The migrants who made it across the U.S.-Mexico border were sent back, they believed, instead of being allowed to roam the country.

The women talked a lot about feeling safe in their homes, because they are only two hours’ drive from New York City, which has recently seen a large influx of migrants. Trump, they said, would do a better job than Biden at locating those who have committed crimes and deporting them. “And how many terrorist cells are in New York or Chicago or Colorado?” Tina said.

But what about all the criminal indictments against Trump? “I think he’s guilty,” Tara said, with a shrug—she had voted for him twice. “If you’re repulsive, you’re repulsive.”

portrait of Tara
Tara, 63, stands for a portrait. “This is the best the United States can do?” she asked. “That we have no viable candidate other than Biden and Trump? It’s sad.” (Hannah Yoon for The Atlantic)

So why not vote for Biden then? I asked. A few in the group rolled their eyes. They were mad about housing costs and gas prices. But more important, they said, is that Biden just seems so old. “I was hoping after that report came out in February—where the conclusion was he’s an elderly man with a bad memory—that maybe the party would step up and say, ‘We’ve gotta find somebody else,’” Tara said, referring to Special Counsel Robert Hur’s investigation of Biden’s mishandling of classified documents.

In a way, these women seemed to feel like they’d been conned. Biden had pledged to be a “bridge” candidate back in 2020, and they’d taken him at his word. He “put himself out there as this segue to the next generation, as a palate cleanser,” Henderson told me. “But now he still wants to be president?”

“And here we are,” Kelleher said. “Joe: Step the hell down, man!” Most of the women had positive feelings about Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, who differs little from Biden politically but is more than 30 years younger. Why couldn’t someone like him run for president against Trump?

The Biden campaign is banking on reproductive rights being a motivating force again in this election, as it was in the 2020 midterms. But this factored in for only a few of these women.

Ford, the career coach, had volunteered for Rachel’s Vineyard, a pro-life organization offering support to women who have had abortions. She’d voted for Trump in the past, she said, if only to support further anti-abortion legislation.

Kelleher, who described herself as pro-choice, was puzzled. “Even though you know that if, in one of Trump’s various and assorted affairs, if one of his girlfriends came back pregnant, he’d send her to get an abortion?”

“I do know that,” Ford said.

“Probably to the opposite of you, I will vote for Biden” to support abortion rights, Henderson said. “Even though I don’t want to.” I was struck by how unfailingly civil they were to one another—even when disagreements were sharp.

The frustrating thing about voting, they said, is that a ballot offers no opportunity to register a nuanced point of view; you can’t add a qualifier to your choice that says, Hated January 6, though. Which has led to some of them feeling judged for their choice. “If you say that you voted for Trump to win the last election,” Tina said, “you are almost put in the same category as the people that stormed the Capitol.”

portrait of Delana Fiadino
Delana Fiadino, 58, believes that Kennedy will most likely win. She says, “I don’t think they’re telling us the way it is, because they want this. They want us to think there’s a two-party option, and that’s it.” (Hannah Yoon for The Atlantic)

Delana Fiadino, a 58-year-old hypnotherapist who voted for Biden in 2020, was itching to step in to explain that all of this—everything we’d been talking about—is why she’s voting for Kennedy this time around. “It’s sad because he’s painted to be a kook, but he’s not,” she said. “He’s fought Big Pharma, major corporations; he’s for good soil, for our foods, our health.” And she insisted that he was not an anti-vaxxer. (Kennedy has consistently questioned vaccines’ safety and efficacy.)

“But how do you feel about the fact that he most likely won’t win?” Henderson asked.

“I think he most likely will,” Fiadino said. “I don’t think they’re telling us the way it is, because they want this. They want us to think there’s a two-party option, and that’s it.”

Right now, Kennedy has collected only enough signatures to get on the ballot in a handful of states, but his campaign has pledged to get him on the ballot in all 50 before November 5. In national polling, Kennedy stands at about 12 percent, which makes him the highest-scoring third-party candidate since Ross Perot. In a three-way race among Biden, Trump, and Kennedy, some polls show RFK’s candidacy making a Trump victory more likely. But Kennedy could pull votes away from Trump, too, if some of his own former voters are disillusioned—as my nonrepresentative sample suggested.

Kelleher was nodding as Fiadino spoke. Everyone always says that voting for a third party is wasting your vote and spoiling the outcome, Kelleher said. “But dammit, if nobody steps up and gets counted, how do things ever change?” If she had to vote right now, she said, it’d be Kennedy, for sure.

Tara and Tina would likely vote for Trump. Henderson was solidly pro-Biden. Joyce Merryman, a 69-year-old Realtor who supports abortion rights, had voted for Trump in 2020 but said she’d have to think about it this time. Maybe she’d read a little more about Kennedy at home. Ford said she would too. Which is when I began to wonder if my little focus group had incubated a whole new batch of Kennedy supporters. Of course, their answers may simply reflect the fact that many Americans haven’t yet started thinking seriously about the election. Then again, this may indicate what could happen when they do.

The sun had set on Bucks County hours ago. The bottles of wine were empty, and we’d started gathering empty glasses and plates. Kelleher looked around the room. So much can happen before the election, she said. Maybe seven months would be enough time for something—anything—to give dissatisfied voters some reason for optimism. “I just think we are the majority,” Kelleher said to the group. “There’s so many people like us.”

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