For months, as the election wound down to its bitter conclusion, Leonard Rainey of Louisiana struggled over which presidential candidate he’d support.
In the past, the choice would have been simple. Rainey, 33, leans Republican. He voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. But like others this cycle, he found the idea of backing GOP nominee Donald Trump repugnant, matched only by the nausea that accompanied the thought of pulling the lever for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
He entertained sitting out the election. But, as he said, “you don’t have a right to bitch if you don’t vote.” So he pored over the news in search of guidance. It became overwhelming. Each WikiLeaks revelation was a new micro-drama; every Trump debate performance an eye-opener.
“His mouth doesn’t fucking stop,” he said after the second one.
By the final week, the continuous revelations and conspiracy theories surrounding Clinton were taking a toll. Rainey had heard something about Clinton’s ties to a pedophilia ring ― a hoax that led an armed man to fire shots in a D.C.-based pizzeria. He found Clinton Foundation ties to the Saudis and Qatari government disturbing.
The night before Election Day, Rainey kept worrying about how a President Trump might navigate a complex international standoff. He woke up wondering if Clinton was the right choice. But in the end, he voted for Trump anyway ― an uninspired, rote contribution to American democracy.
“You could have put up anybody else against him,” Rainey said. “But they just picked a bad candidate.”
There is little disagreement that voters like Rainey ― the “late deciders” ― were ultimately responsible for Trump’s election. But a month and a half after his victory, an argument persists over why they voted the way they did. Clinton’s defenders blame FBI Director James Comey, who opened up a new investigation into Clinton-related emails 10 days before the election, only to close it a week later. Clinton’s critics say a campaign that was outworked and outsmarted in the Rust Belt states is merely in denial.
In interviews with a number of late deciding voters ― found through various social media networks ― a less elegant explanation emerges. Comey was a factor for some but not others, and even then, it’s not clear how decisive his letters were. For many voters, random, often arbitrary moments from the campaign proved motivating in often unexpected ways. That Clinton left herself vulnerable to their whims is the story of the election as much as the eleventh-hour pronouncement from the FBI director.
“That was not the nail in the coffin,” Rainey said of Comey. “It was the throwing of gas on a fire. ... Ultimately, there was too much baggage with her.”
The Clinton campaign’s argument that Comey decided the election is based on simple math. Data shows that the majority of voters who made up their minds during the last week of the election broke for Trump ― and in significant numbers. Comey’s dual announcements were the major revelation of the week; ergo, he must have changed the course of the election.
This isn’t just a public posture, either. In a private conference call two days after the vote, Clinton’s campaign staff told surrogates that internal data showed voters unfavorable to either candidate broke heavily towards Trump “by a 20 to 30 percent margin.”
One of those voters was Steven Hernandez. A teacher in Pennsylvania, Hernandez described himself as a libertarian-leaning Republican who “despised Trump for most of my life.” During the GOP primaries, he supported Carly Fiorina and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). And when those two dropped out, he joined the ranks of #NeverTrump Republicans.
And yet, on Nov. 8, he went with Trump ― the final act of months of political self-reflection.
Initially, Hernandez saw Clinton as a pragmatist. He wasn’t particularly disturbed by the emails, hacked and publicized on WikiLeaks, from her campaign chief John Podesta. Even Clinton’s use of a private email account didn’t bother him much.
What turned him, gradually, was the relentless criticism of Trump. Hernandez felt sympathy for the man as Clinton and the media aggressively harped on allegations of sexual assault, including ones Hernandez viewed as unfounded. The agitation he initially experienced when Trump casually skated through controversies turned into begrudging respect for his perseverance. By the time Comey’s letter announcing a new investigation of Clinton came out, he was already leaning toward the GOP nominee.
“The letter itself didn’t phase me or move me either way on Clinton. But her reaction to it kind of solidified it,” Hernandez said. “If I wanted to say when I knew for sure, it was when they started attacking Comey for doing his job in the weekend prior to the election.”
Adam Shutt, a 35-year-old civil engineer from Muscatine, Iowa, was another Republican whose mind was unsettled through the campaign’s final week. But unlike Hernandez, Schutt flirted with supporting former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) before ultimately backing Trump.
Trump had not been his first choice during the primary, he said, “or even my fifth.” And much of the general election confirmed his ambivalence. As late as his lunch break on Election Day, Schutt planned to vote for Johnson. Ultimately, however, he went with party allegiance. “I figured if I’m going to vote for a guy a little bit off the wall, I might as well vote Trump,” he explained.
I figured if I’m going to vote for a guy a little bit off the wall, I might as well vote Trump. Adam Shutt, a 35-year-old civil engineer from Muscatine, Iowa
Comey’s letter, Shutt conceded, may have played a small, subliminal role in helping make up his mind; not because he was shocked by the content but because it motivated him toward a certain outcome. “Most of the undecideds I know weren’t deciding between Trump and Hillary. They were weighing the imperfection of the two versus the reality of dealing with the other in office,” Schutt said. “So, many of us ‘principled’ people decided to vote Trump just to stop Hillary.”
The late-deciding voters breaking for Trump weren’t just Republicans. Andrew Bagley, 40, a diehard supporter of both President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he found Trump’s every utterance “abhorrent.” But he voted for him anyway, even as gay family members expressed fear to him that Trump would treat them “as second-class citizens.”
It wasn’t Comey’s letter that convinced him. It was foreign policy.
“I think Trump is far less likely to get us involved in endless war in the Middle East,” Bagley, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said. “And the thing to me that is most important is not getting into unnecessary wars. Trump might be more likely to press the nuclear button than Hillary. But I put the chances of a nuclear war at 0.00001 percent. I put chances of a war in the Middle East with Hillary at nearly 100 percent.”
Among the theories the Clinton campaign held during the election was that college-educated Republicans would be so repulsed by the prospect of a Trump presidency that many would cast a vote to prevent it from happening. Polling reinforced this idea. These were the voters most likely to swing from one candidate to another in response to a major controversy (the Billy Bush tapes, for example).
Yet what caught the Clinton campaign off guard was both how many of these voters would ultimately hold their nose and vote for Trump anyway (compelled by Comey or not) and how many of them would drift away from Trump but not necessarily toward Clinton.
Dustin Mooney, 27, of Orlando, Florida, fell into the latter category. He had voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and was prepared to cross the aisle to back Clinton four years later. He was bothered by her arrogance ― as if, he put it, “the American people were a speed bump to get to her ultimate objective.” But he liked her foreign policy views and pegged her as a moderate on domestic issues.
Trump, meanwhile, was a non-starter. “I knew I wasn’t going to vote for him as soon as he won the nomination,” Mooney, an account manager, said.
But as the election neared, the accumulation of negative Clinton stories became ineluctable. Comey’s letter was a part of it. But by that point, Mooney’s opinion of Clinton’s email use was firm. Anyone not of her stature, he’d concluded, would have been punished to some degree.
On election day, Mooney was so torn about what to do that filled out his ballot backwards ― checking off the local races and saving the presidential contest for last. When it came time to cast that ballot, he wrote in Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s name.
“Quite frankly, going into the election, I thought [Clinton] was going to win pretty handedly,” he explained. “My calculus would certainly have changed if I thought there was a bigger chance that Trump was going to win. But it was hard for me to wrap my head around that outcome based on the polling.”
My calculus would have certainly have changed if I thought there was a bigger chance that Trump was going to win. Dustin Mooney, 27, of Orlando, Florida
Michelle Hart, of Orange County, California, also had the resume of a fence-sitting Republican whom the Clinton campaign thought it could pry from Trump. Hart had worked in politics for years ― with California Republicans ranging from Gov. Pete Wilson to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ― and cast her first vote in 1992 for George H.W. Bush. But she exhibited political independence, too, backing California Democrat Dianne Feinstein for the Senate and supporting Obama’s 2008 campaign.
More importantly, Hart didn’t want to vote for Trump. She was shocked he had even decided to run. But she couldn’t bring herself to back Clinton, either. The allure of seeing a woman president was outweighed by her philosophical disagreements with Clinton. At weekly “girl dinners,” she said she’d find herself trying to rationalize voting in discomforting ways.
“I thought, ‘Do I dance with the devil I know or don’t?’” Hart recalled. “And I realized I’m calling them both ‘devil.’”
The Comey letter didn’t bother Hart. And, indeed, the night before the election, she found herself considering a vote for Clinton after being inspired by first lady Michelle Obama’s introductory remarks at a rally in Philadelphia. But then Clinton came onstage and delivered a milquetoast speech that seemed, to Hart, to lack any passion. The next day, she wrote in Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) as her choice for president.
“It was absolutely the toughest vote I had to cast,” she said.
Hart says she has no regrets about her vote. And why should she? California went overwhelmingly to Clinton. One ballot for Kasich there did not make a difference.
But for some of the other late deciders who went to Trump or avoided Clinton, there seems to be a creeping sense of guilt. Shutt, of Iowa, said he wished Trump would abandon the campaign-like rhetoric he’s carried over to the transition. “He hasn’t blown anything up yet,” he said of the president-elect. “But that’s a pretty low bar, I know.”
Mooney, of Florida, said that if he had his vote back now, he’d probably support Clinton rather than Ryan. He didn’t expect Trump to win when he wrote the speaker’s name on his ballot.
“In my eyes, he had to pull a royal straight flush to win,” he said. “And he did! He drew the river card.”
And while Bagley said he didn’t want his vote back ― at least not yet ― he was open to the possibility that Trump’s presidency would prove damaging in ways similar to, if not greater than, what he worried about with Clinton.
“Do I regret that he won? At the moment, no,” he said. “He hasn’t taken office yet. But in a year or two, I might. It’s kind of like Brexit. No one is going to know if it is the right choice or not till five years down the road.”
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