CLINTON, Ind. – The name of this town north of Terre Haute may be Clinton, but it is Donald Trump country – the kind of place where, on a perfect late-spring day, Tim Donna and two buddies could be found taking turns shooting AR-15s at an outdoor firing range.
Donna, 53, voted for Trump, as did 70 percent of the Republicans who cast primary ballots here in Vermillion County. But in the weeks since, he has grown less thrilled about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Although Donna said he would never cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton, he worries about Trump’s foreign policy – which Donna said “will suck” – and he has watched with alarm as the mogul-turned-presumptive Republican nominee has claimed that an Indiana-born federal judge’s Hispanic heritage made him biased.
“I’m afraid his mouth is gonna get us in trouble,” Donna said of his preferred candidate.
Returning home from a walk close to her gated golfing community near Gainesville, Virginia, Sue Munson, 67, sounded as if she is practically Donna’s mirror opposite.
An independent, she expects to vote for Clinton, though she has trepidation about the former secretary of state. Munson worries that Clinton, with all her years of public controversy, is “very divisive.”
But mostly what drives her toward Clinton is her feeling that Trump is a “threat to democracy” who would leave America “so tarnished we would never recover.”
With the wildest primary season in memory coming to an end and the two majorparties having settled on their nominees, it seems fair to say that the state of our union is . . . perplexed.
As voters turn to the real choice that is ahead, they are having trouble getting to yes with either candidate.
In dozens of interviews across the country – from heavily white small towns in Indiana to black neighborhoods in Charlotte, from retirement communities in suburban Virginia to Hispanic and Muslim enclaves in Las Vegas and New Jersey, respectively – voters sounded far more passionate talking about why they could not vote for one of the two candidates than in making a positive case for either.
A phrase that came up more than any other was, “the lesser of two evils,” reflecting the fact that Trump and Clinton have higher unfavorability ratings than any two candidates the two parties have put forward since polling began.
The reality that Trump, the blunt outsider who slayed the Republican establishment, could be president is finally hitting some who voted for him in the primary.
Since his candidacy announcement a year ago this week, Trump has seemed immune from the fallout of his outrageous comments, in part because he was playing to a Republican electorate and running in a crowded field.
But now that he has won his spot at the top of the ballot, the context has shifted. Even Trump supporters said they have been alarmed by his unpresidential behavior lately, particularly his sharp attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a civil fraud lawsuit involving Trump University.
With Clinton, their reservations are the opposite, in some ways, from their fear of a Trumpian unknown. In her case, it is that voters think they know her too well.
She, too, won a spirited primary – in her case, against an opponent who did surprisingly well by painting her as everything that is wrong about the status quo.
At a time when Americans want change and are fed up, can the ultimate insider shake off the accumulated ambivalence that has been built up around her since she stepped on the national stage a generation ago? The controversy over her use of a private email system when she was secretary of state has only reinforced their concerns about her trustworthiness.
“It’s a clown show. I’m pretty much embarrassed to be an American citizen,” said Tim Spendal, a registered Democrat who owns a meat market in Clinton and who hasn’t decided how he will vote in November.
“I’m probably going to wait until they hash it out. Watch a debate,” Spendal said. “I want to know if Trump can speak without being racist and pissing people off.”
Interviews across the country suggest that the problems afflicting Trump and Clinton are unsettling many of their potential supporters, but in most cases are not yet disqualifying. This dynamic is the backdrop for the intense and nasty battle ahead.
The time-honored playbook for running against an unpopular opponent is to make the election about that other person. Trump and Clinton probably will seek to mobilize their own supporters with aggressive attacks on each other, while each also is likely to try to peel away voters from the other by stoking the doubts already present in their minds.
Polls indicate that only about one-quarter of the public thinks that the country is on the right track.
“I look around, and I see our nation is hurting. Something’s gotta change, or else we’re not gonna have nothing,” said Samantha Barber, 31, who works at a food-processing plant in Mooresville, Indiana, and who worries about what the future holds for her three elementary-school-age children.
But when this undecided voter considered the standard-bearers that the two parties will be putting at the top of the ballot in November, she said: “I don’t like any of them. It’s just a big game.”
For minority communities in particular, this year is a far cry from the euphoria of 2008, with its prospect of making then-Sen. Barack Obama the first black president.
But for many nonwhites, Trump’s candidacy may have ignited a new sense of purpose. His talk of building a wall on the Mexican border and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country has elevated the stakes in what the current polls show to be a tight presidential race.
“It’s woken up an immense giant and it’s giving us that boost that we needed to understand the value that we have in the community, and helped us realize that if we don’t unite and we don’t turn out, we’ll lose,” said Nelson Araujo, 28, a Nevada state assemblyman who represents some of the most heavily Hispanic parts of Las Vegas. “It is a big election cycle, but the severity and consequences could be really grave, at least for our community, should Trump come out successful.”
On the other side of the country, in South Brunswick, New Jersey, Azra Baig, who was attending a mosque for the final prayers of the night during Islam’s holy month, expressed a similar sentiment.
“We don’t need to just watch, we need to get out and vote,” said Baig, a 43-year-old registered nurse who was the first female Asian American voted to the school board in South Brunswick. “This is a dangerous man; we don’t know what he’s capable of. That’s what makes it so scary.”
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Three times a week, Norma Quinn, 90, watches the squabbling and name-calling on cable news as she undergoes dialysis in Prince William County, the fast-growing exurban area that is considered a bellwether in battleground state Virginia.
“In the beginning, I was warming up to Trump – he doesn’t talk like a politician, which was refreshing,” she said. “But he has made such a fool of himself. His conduct has disturbed me, and I don’t think I want him to lead our country.”
Nor does she think much of his ideas.
Build a wall along the Mexican border? “Not possible,” Quinn said.
And those comments about Curiel, the judge? “Clearly racist. He has to apologize.”
Trump often notes how his candidacy produced record numbers in the Republican primary, and predicts that he can bring out voters – and win states – that do not usually end up in the GOP column.
“That’s a very important part of our strategy,” his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an interview. “Now, we’ve got a clear choice; there’s a clear dichotomy in this election.”
But if Cathy Horn of Brooklyn, Indiana, is any indication, Trump still has some work to do within his party, winning over those who voted for other GOP candidates.
Horn, 66, has worked at a steel mill for 44 years and supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the primary. As she sat in her Saturn SUV the other day, she pondered her choice for the fall.
“I don’t want to see either of them in there,” Horn said. “Mr. Trump does not have the finesse to be president. Hillary is getting in because of her husband and because she’s female.”
Horn was horrified to hear Trump’s comments about Curiel, and cannot understand why GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, can denounce what he said and still support him.
On some level, Horn said, she is simply mystified: “I feel as though I don’t know what’s going on in our country.”
Steve Dowling, 53, is another Kasich voter who feels torn. A district sales manager in Stow, Ohio, he was visiting Indianapolis for a conference.
He will be closely watching the GOP convention in his home state in July for signs that Trump is up to the job. But he also said he is open to an alternative to the two major-party standard-bearers.
“I’m hopeful someone comes in and is a stronger candidate,” he said. “I don’t know if we needed it in the past, but if these are the candidates, it is going to open the door for a third party.”
Jeff Cooprider, a 67-year-old retiree, cast his vote in the Indiana primary for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He forgives Trump’s comment about Curiel but has another concern: his temperament.
“I think we’re headed for a war if we get Trump in there,” Cooprider said. “Not just over there, but over here, with all the protesters.”
But, he added, “I just can’t make myself vote for Hillary, so that leaves Trump, I guess.”
Others say they voted for Trump, and remain glad they did.
Gary Shay, 71, was nursing a cup of coffee at Benjamin’s Family Restaurant, a .38 Special on his hip.
“I want to bring this country back to where it used to be,” Shay said. “It all comes back to basics: He’s a Christian. God, guns and guts. And patriotism.”
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Carmen Blackmon, 54, runs an after-school program in Charlotte, where African Americans and Hispanics make up 40 percent of the population.
Those two groups also propelled Clinton toward the presumptive nomination. Clinton won 78 percent of African American voters and 60 percent of Latinos. Among whites, Sanders narrowly edged her out in exit polls across the primaries.
Blackmon likes the idea of electing the first female president. But, she said, “I am nowhere near as happy or excited as I was when President Obama was running.”
Torn between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic primary, “I finally settled for Hillary, because the main thing for me was, well, who really does have the greatest experience? Who really will be able to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump?” Blackmon said. “I can’t say that I’m excited about her being my choice, but there’s no way – I cannot vote for Donald Trump.”
There was a similar tone of resignation at Mariana’s SuperMarket, which is five-and-a-half miles northeast of Las Vegas’s famed Strip and Trump’s gold hotel tower there.
In 106-degree heat, a Democratic organizer was trying to sign up new voters as part of the party’s goal of adding 16,000 people from this neighborhood to the rolls by the time registration ends in October.
Ericka Morales, a 19-year-old Army reservist, stopped and took a clipboard.
“I was kind of hoping it was going to be Bernie,” she said. Morales does not think that all of Trump’s ideas are bad, but immigration is her top concern, because she has family members who he would round up and deport.
As for Clinton: “She’s kind of taken the wrong side. But she’s a woman. She’s going to represent me a little more.”
Jose Macias, 27, was voting early Wednesday, ahead of this week’s Nevada primaries for local and congressional elections. The national debate over immigration policy is very real to him. His father is eligible to stay in this country under Obama’s delayed-action program for parents of Americans, which Republicans have argued is an unconstitutional abuse of executive power; his mother died of a stroke two years ago because she was too scared, as an undocumented immigrant, to call an ambulance.
“I don’t want to wake up in a country where Trump is my president,” Macias said. But he also acknowledged that, as a Sanders supporter, he is not without misgivings about Clinton.
“She never really inspired me, and right now, I’m at a point where I don’t know if I trust her,” he said, adding that one way she could remedy that is to add Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, to her ticket.
At the South Brunswick mosque, worshipers were also coming to grips with the fact that a major political party is getting ready to nominate a presidential candidate who would ban people of their faith – temporarily, Trump says – from coming to the United States.
“Anyone but Trump,” said Nouran Shehata, 21, a recent graduate from Rutgers University. “Hillary Clinton was not my preferred choice, but we recognize the big risk.”
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This article was reported by Katie Zezima in Indiana, Robert Samuels in New Jersey, Ed O’Keefe in Nevada, Vanessa Williams in North Carolina, Isaac Stanley-Becker in Virginia and Tumulty in Washington.