Like many Americans, Amy Fazackerley is worried about the economy. The 49-year-old runs a small business near Washington, DC in Virginia, which sells mats that roll up into bags – a product she invented in response to her sons’ Lego mess and she sees mom-and-pop firms like hers closing every day.
“It breaks my heart,” she says. “The government has to step up.”
But Ms Fazackerley’s worries aren’t changing her vote. The Republican backed Mr Trump in 2016 and will be voting for him again, thanks to his record promoting small business and confronting China over intellectual property theft – a key issue for her business, which faces a constant battle against knock-off products.
“He’s actually done what he said he was going to do,” she says.
‘Pre-existing partisan lens’
Mr Trump may have been dealt a blow after testing positive for coronavirus last week, temporarily halting his campaigning while he self-isolates.
But when it comes to the economy at least, polls show approval of Mr Trump’s handling of the issue has held up – despite the upheaval caused by the pandemic, which has left more than 10 million people out of work and prompted an estimated 100,000 small businesses to shut forever.
Though voters broadly rank the economy as a top concern and overall views have soured sharply, opinions on the subject are closely tied to whether a person identifies as Democrat or Republican.
“The economy is very important but what we’re finding is that voters are interpreting the economic situation through a pre-existing partisan lens,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which regularly surveys the nation.
He says that has shielded the president from the drag that might be expected in a more typical election, when voters often pin blame for a downturn on the person and party in power.
“Compared to 2016 and in fact compared to many other elections before this, the vast majority of the electorate was already locked in before the campaign even started and economic conditions changing, impeachments – all those things have very little impact.”
‘Still the leader’
That’s welcome news for President Trump, who has made his record cutting taxes, slashing labour and environmental regulations and defending US companies against foreign competitors a key calling card to voters.
He captured the White House in 2016 with support from small business owners like Ms Fazackerley, who make up a key voting group in the US, which tends to lean conservative and punch above its weight when it comes to turnout at the polls.
“Taxes are huge for small business, regulations are another huge issue. Those are probably our two biggest things,” says Lana Pol, 64, who runs five businesses in Iowa, including a trucking company and a warehousing firm. “When it comes to those things, President Trump is still the leader.”
Ms Pol, a Republican, supported Mr Trump in 2016 and plans to vote for him again. She says she rates the current economy an “eight out of 10” and cites the president’s accomplishments, such as the 2017 tax cuts, which saved her businesses some $40,000 last year.
“I’ve definitely been listening and watching all of it,” she says. “But I can’t think of anything that really would sway me.”
The resilience of Mr Trump’s approval ratings on economic issues has frustrated Democrats and raised concerns that their candidate, former Vice-President Joe Biden, has not done enough to tie his opponent to the economic collapse.
But the truism in American politics that the fate of a sitting president is tied to the state of the economy simply doesn’t bear out, says Graham Wilson, a professor of political science at Boston University, noting that partisan identity tends to be the main driver of votes.
Issues beyond the economy are driving the election this year, he adds.
“This is an extremely divided nation,” he says. “There are really antagonistic, deeply felt divisions that go beyond the performance of the administration and the performance of the economy to how you think about this country, what it stands for and the component of what makes Americanism.”
While Mr Trump has honed his economic pitch, he has also sought to excite his supporters by focusing on issues such as guns and law and order.
Mr Biden, meanwhile, has focused his campaign on Mr Trump’s failures as a leader and his threat to democratic norms. And he faces pressure from the left to speak out more boldly when it comes to issues of policing and racial justice, which have sparked mass protests this year.
‘A strange time’
That’s an area where Ronnie Slone, the owner of a consulting firm in Louisiana that provides staff training and development, says he is dissatisfied by both candidates.
Mr Slone, who backed Mr Trump in 2016 as a breath of “fresh air”, says his support has been shaken by the president’s rhetoric, especially on racial issues,
But he remains undecided, unconvinced that Mr Biden offers a real change, noting little progress in closing racial wealth gaps during the many decades Mr Biden served in government.
“For small businesses, we need a pro-small business leader and we need a person that is going to be looking at the fact that equity is extremely important to people of colour and people of colour in business,” he says. “I haven’t heard the Biden-Harris campaign tell me anything that’s different from what I’ve seen for some years now.”
While he continues to stand with the president when it comes to economic policies, Mr Slone says he’s not sure those issues, which typically guide his choices, will be top of his mind when voting this year.
“It’s a strange time and we all know that,” he says. “The era, the world events, the cultural events – all those things are weighing heavily.”
Raymond Searles, the long-time owner of a small coffee shop in the eastern state of Delaware, is a lifelong Republican, who backed Mr Trump in 2016, drawn in part by his record as a businessman and has never once voted for Mr Biden, though the candidate represented his home state in Congress for more than 30 years.
But in a first this November, the 63-year-old plans to cast his ballot for Mr Biden.
Mr Searles says his regrets over his 2016 vote formed almost immediately, when Mr Trump’s outrage over reports of small crowds at his swearing-in as president overshadowed the inauguration.
And though the pandemic has forced Mr Searles to close his cafe and briefly go on unemployment benefit, he says it’s his horror at Mr Trump’s self-dealing, appointment of people with dubious credentials and divisive rhetoric that has over-ridden his traditional Republican loyalties.
“The way he’s inciting people is just unacceptable to me,” he says.
“I don’t see any other choice. It’s either what’s good for America and what’s good for future generations, or Trump.”