ST. BERNARD PARISH, LOUISIANA - While national polls show Donald Trump's support slipping during the prolonged pandemic and amid racial unrest, the president's most ardent supporters in bedrock Republican-backing states like Louisiana remain doggedly in his corner.
"I have no doubt I'm voting to reelect Donald Trump this year," says Robert Caretto, a retired firefighter who moved to Louisiana to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina.
Caretto lives in St. Bernard Parish, a collection of small communities sandwiched between swamps, the Mississippi River and lakes that lead to the Gulf of Mexico. Its towns are quieter, less diverse and significantly more conservative than the nearby city of New Orleans.
Nearly 60% of New Orleans' residents are Black, compared to about 20% in St. Bernard Parish. And while 15% of New Orleans voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump in 2016, a whopping 65% in St. Bernard Parish voted for him.
"You don't have to be the most likeable to be a great president," says local Trump supporter Melody Riley. "It's not a personality contest. He has shown great strength and leadership at every rally, debate and press conference. He has called out the fake news and has revealed their deceptions to the American people."
"There's no changing people's minds about him here," laughs Bridget Bitely, an independent voter in St. Bernard parish who says she did not vote for the president in 2016 and will not be voting for him in 2020, "This is definitely Trump country."
Cracks in the base
According to Gallup polling, the percentage of Americans who approve of the job Trump has done as President dropped from 49% on April 28 to 38% on June 30. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading Trump in six states Trump won in 2016: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Most troubling for the President is that support appears to be waning from key constituencies that propelled him to victory four years ago, including evangelical Christians, Catholics and white voters lacking a college degree.
These pro-Trump demographic groups weigh heavily in Louisiana's electorate, but Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans, says local factors keep Louisiana Republicans loyal to Trump, even as his base erodes elsewhere.
"Even though they might be unhappy with aspects of his COVID response, or with his handling of the economy in recent months," Collins says, "they're not going to jump ship because they're scared to death of electing a Democrat. Biden is pro-gun [control] and he's pro-choice. In a state of hunters and Roman Catholics, those issues are deal breakers."
Louisiana State University political scientist James Garand sees two main categories of Trump supporters.
"You have his most ardent supporters who will support the President under almost all circumstances, and then you have his lukewarm supporters," Garand says. Those lukewarm supporters, he explains, might have voted for Trump in 2016 because they despised Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or out of concern over a specific issue, like control of the Supreme Court.
"But Louisiana is more conservative than many other places in the country," he adds. "My sense is that we have a higher percentage of those ardent supporters here than elsewhere."
Additionally, voters who have soured on Trump may be hesitant to speak out.
"Peer pressure from the ardent Trump supporters in their communities might push them back toward supporting the President, or at least force them to keep their support of another candidate private," Garand says.
Not so for Megan Chriss. She says she voted for the billionaire New York real estate businessman in 2016 because she didn't see Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, as authentic. She adds that her family and many in her community work in the oil industry, and that Trump's policies were more oil-friendly.
After watching him for nearly four years in office, however, the St. Bernard parish resident says she won't be voting for him again.
"But I don't know of a single person other than myself who has changed their mind on him," she says. "After his lack of leadership with the COVID pandemic, and the way he throws fuel on the fire with the police brutality protests and riots, I guess I'm surprised I don't know of at least a few more people who switched away from him."
Caretto acknowledges Trump has made mistakes but believes the president is being held to an unfair standard by his detractors.
"Do I think he's perfect?" asks Caretto. "Of course, I don't. But what President doesn't make mistakes? Who could stop a global pandemic? And now Democrats are blaming him for that somehow."
Caretto's argument is often heard among Trump supporters. While they may take issue with Trump's brashness, they also feel the results he gets benefit them and the country.
"I think he's full of himself and I wish he'd tweet less," says commercial fisherman George Barisich, "but America needed someone like this. We were pushovers after the Obama years, and maybe we needed a tough guy like Trump to stand up for us."
Melody Riley says she admires Trump's tenacity and believes he is mistreated by Democrats and the news media.
"I feel he handled COVID-19 as good as any president could have," she says. "There's nothing he could do that isn't criticized. He could cure cancer and he'd still be ripped apart for it."
At 70-years-old, Caretto is not quite as glowing with his evaluation of Trump's COVID response. He says he's been forced to stay inside for most of the last four months and wishes the President had pushed harder for people to wear masks.
But such criticism isn't likely to cost Trump a substantial number of votes in Louisiana, according political observers in the state, where for many people pulling the lever for a Democrat is unthinkable.
Riley and other like-minded Louisiana Republicans are adamant that there's no viable alternative to Trump.
"The American people aren't stupid," she says, "You'd have to be crazy to vote for a Democrat."