In key swing states, Donald Trump appealed to some of the same voters who backed Barack Obama—and those voters said the most important thing was fighting against the way things were.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Carter Paulmier's path to voting for Trump started in 2008, when he fell in love with Barack Obama. Paulmier, a political junkie, couldn't cast a ballot for the then senator from Illinois—he was only 15 at the time—but Obama appealed to him like no other politician.
"I remember him coming from behind in the primary against Hillary [Clinton]," says Paulmier, who went on to vote for Obama in 2012. "The 2008 primary gave Obama an unstoppable momentum at the time."
Paulmier saw that same kind of momentum in 2016 in the outsider campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But Sanders couldn't defeat his party's establishment, whereas Trump knocked out mainstream Republicans, even Jeb Bush, the product of a political dynasty. For Paulmier, that was a reminder of Obama's outsider strength in defeating America's other dynasty in 2008, the dynasty that Sanders failed to demolish in 2016.
Paulmier refused to be one of those disillusioned Bernie supporters who was resigned to voting for Clinton. Conventional partisan wisdom holds that if your candidate loses in a heated primary campaign, you eventually get over it and stand with the party in the end like a good soldier. Clinton herself went to work for Obama as secretary of state while plotting her comeback to electoral politics.
But Paulmier didn't have that kind of loyalty to the Democrats. For him, the path from Sanders to Trump—both of them rebels—was smooth. "The overlap between the interests of Bernie supporters and Trump supporters was real but not discussed in the media," says Paulmier. What were those interests? "Mainly ending corporate collusion politics, bringing in domestic industry, establishing a border, which Bernie was in favor of. I think there is a lot of more commonality."
So Paulmier endured the incredulity of his parents, lifelong Democrats who lived in Philadelphia, and became part of a pattern in several swing states that may well have delivered a close election to Trump—the emergence of the Obama-Trump voter. The Republican nominee carried Wisconsin's ten Bush-Obama counties, counties that George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004 and Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Trump also won Iowa's four purple and Michigan's four swing counties. In Ohio, Trump grabbed three of the state's four Bush-Obama counties.
In Paulmier's home state of Pennsylvania, Trump carried Erie County, on the northwestern tip of state, with 48.8 percent of the vote to Clinton's 46.8 percent—even though Obama trounced Romney there by a whopping 57.9 percent to 40.9 percent margin in 2012. On the other end of the state, Trump carried Northampton County, winning 50 percent of the vote to Clinton's 46 percent; Obama won that county with 51 percent in 2012. Also in northeastern Pennsylvania, Trump won 58 percent of vote in Luzerne County, where Obama beat Romney 51 to 46.
Watch VICE News Tonight's segment on how the election was run in North Carolina:
The same appeal that drew Paulmier to Trump worked on voters all over the country.
"It was very, very tough," says Richard Hartman, 59, an insurance consultant who lives in Pleasantville, New York.. "I went back and forth so many times. One of the biggest things, every time he'd open his mouth, I'd start to switch and think, You know what? I'll just vote for Hillary."
In the end, however, Hartman's affinity for outsiders won out; he wanted to see a businessman in the White House. Hartman did what four of his five children wouldn't do and voted for Trump—for some of the same reasons he cast ballots for eccentric third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992 and Obama in 2008 and 2012.
"I was all excited when Ross Perot ran. I was tired of the status quo. I was tired of business as usual," Hartman tells me. "The initial attraction with Obama and even some of the attraction to Trump was that it's not the status quo... There may have also been a little bit of my underdog type of mentality that definitely resonated with voting for Obama the first time and Trump this time. The backroom deals—and that's what I thought we were gonna get with Hillary. More of the status quo, more of the backroom deals, the corruption, the lying."
Hartman knows about being an outsider, the odd man out. He grew up in Queens during a time of rapid change—when he entered Junior High School 192 in 1968, the school was 40 percent white. By the time, he graduated, it was less than 5 percent white. His white family remained in the neighborhood as the racial makeup changed from white to black; he was used to being in the minority at parties, of being one of the only whites on the F train.
"One of the things that turned me off to Trump the most was his bullying, but then I rationalized that as that's part of being a businessperson. I don't know. It was tough."
Hartman says he had to overlook parts of Trump's campaign—the wall, the comments about Muslims and Mexicans. "That was the toughest part. I think because of my background and because of the way I was raised. Could I vote for someone like that?" Hartmans tells me. "And the way I rationalized it to myself was I actually thought he was just playing to the crowd. I felt that he would say almost anything to get elected... One of the things that turned me off to Trump the most was his bullying, but then I rationalized that as that's part of being a businessperson. I don't know. It was tough."
Warren Rogers, another Obama-Trump voter, was similarly conflicted. "My mind is still not made up and I have already voted," he tells me. "At one point in the election, I felt like I was choosing between Hitler and Mussolini."
Rogers, a former hedge fund manager who now owns an energy investment firm in Austin, Texas, favored Trump over Clinton because he wasn't a creature of DC. "I don't really believe you can not have someone who is part of the problem fix the problem," he says. "I valued Obama as someone who was a very junior senator. He didn't have a lot of experience. I liked that he was liberal, but centrist, and I connected with him. And I also believe the country needed more inclusion and it can't always be a old white man, and when you have a young, democratic candidate who is very well educated and can connect a lot of voters, it was an easy choice."
The choice for Trump was not as easy. He went back and forth, sometimes drawing on his conversations with the convicts he meets through his volunteering with a Christian prison outreach program.
"I led a class on, 'How does a Christian vote?' You're talking to people who have lost their right to vote. So there's even more passion. We spent a lot of time considering, if you could vote, who would you vote for? Why would you do it? It was always interesting in an environment where people are bearing the weight of their sins," Rogers tells me. "The thing that is important to me is predominantly poverty, social justice, and the divide in the US—and the second to that is the broken political system."
I ask how he could have cast a vote for Trump if social justice was so important to him.
"Trump has certainly said some not-OK things about Muslims and that's not OK with me," he replies. "I agree, it does nothing for social justice... But I view Clinton as more broken and more corrupt." For Rogers, the accusations against Clinton involving the Clinton Foundation's alleged conflicts of interest and the sexual assault accusations against her husband Bill.
But Rogers also viewed his ballot as a vehicle to make a statement—a protest vote against the status quote. "Shame on the Democrats that they didn't field the candidate that provoked more love because the fact that she only won the popular vote by such a narrow margin makes me very sad," he says. "I have a lot of love and support for all of Hillary's supporters now. I care greatly for them. I actually went into this thinking that she was gonna crush it. My wife and I talk about it all of the time. When it was clear that he was going to win the nomination we couldn't believe it. We still can't. And now he is president. Like, he is the president. That is something that actually happened."
The woman I'll call Sarah doesn't want me to use her real name. She graduated from Clinton's alma mater, Wellesley College, and many of her friends don't know she voted for Trump. In 2008, she was a strong Clinton supporter, though she says she wasn't as "informed or involved" back then as she is now.
"I was really excited that someone from my school could potentially be president," says Sarah, who immigrated to the United States from Russia when she was nine and grew up in San Francisco. "I was also obviously graduating that year so I think there was a lot of emotion tied to that and I was very disappointed, obviously, when she had lost to Obama. "
Sarah, who now works in financial services in Austin, got over her disappointment and voted for Obama in the general election in 2008, but has become more conservative since then. "My issue with Hillary is that she appeared to me as very unauthentic for a lot of reasons. It's not just the scandals and investigations, but even from her messaging," she tells me.
I ask if she finds Trump more authentic.
"He's behaved like a monkey at times. He really has, and I hope that that's not the type of leadership that he puts forward," she replies. "For me, there was a weighing of pros and cons and I think for many people who voted for him, there was a lot to weigh into that decision. It wasn't perfectly clean. I don't know."
"For now, I would love to see him stand up and speak to the people because the country's so divided with the protests and everything that's going on," she adds. "I think as a leader he really needs to try and communicate to those who are out there on the street protesting in this way and vomiting stuff all over social media."
"Many people, including me, feel the leftist establishment and the establishment on the right both need to go. Now they've both been rejected."
Unlike Sarah, Rogers, and Hartman, Paulmier and and his roommate Brandon Fischer never wavered on Trump. Last month, I watched the second presidential debate with them and some of their friends. They live with two cats in a carriage house nestled behind a wooded area that separates the house from an apartment building. Fischer came to Philadelphia from Bismarck, North Dakota, to pursue his dreams to become a hip-hop producer. He works a variety of jobs—roofing, landscaping—to pay the bills while spending the rest of his time in studios as a producer and audio engineer.
This was two days after Trump notorious "locker room" conversation with Billy Bush became public, and everyone knew that the Republican would face questions about his remarks about grabbing women by the pussy. When that came up, Trump went on the offensive:
"If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine are words, and his was action. This was what he's done to women. There's never been anybody in the history politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women," Trump said on stage. "Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them here tonight. One of the women, who is a wonderful woman, at 12 years old, was raped at 12. Her client she represented got him off, and she's seen laughing on two separate occasions, laughing at the girl who was raped. Kathy Shelton, that young woman is here with us tonight."
Clinton responded: "When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama, advised us all: When they go low, you go high. And, look, if this were just about one video, maybe what he's saying tonight would be understandable, but everyone can draw their own conclusions at this point about whether or not the man in the video or the man on the stage respects women. But he never apologizes for anything to anyone."
In the Philadelphia apartment, the two young men and their friends were not persuaded.
"She did not go too high there, did she?" Fischer said.
Everyone in the room chuckled at what, for them, was another sign of Clinton's hypocrisy. "She brings up Michelle and quotes her and then went to her old chestnut. She criticized Trump again," said Paulmier.
Paulmier and Fischer, who voted for the first time on Tuesday, represent a crucial piece of the electorate in which Hillary Clinton underperformed. In 2008, Obama received 66 percent of the vote among voters ages 18-29; he got 60 percent of that group in 2012. Clinton's share of the youth vote dropped to 55 percent.
Paulmier views his vote for Trump as not just a rejection of Clinton but also the Republican establishment. "It has been too comfortable for the Democratic and Republican party establishments," he says. "Many people, including me, feel the leftist establishment and the establishment on the right both need to go. Now they've both been rejected."
On Election Night, Paulmier was admittedly stunned by Trump's victory, as were most observers. Two days later, he was ecstatic to see the first two men he had voted for—Obama and Trump—at the White House bestowing compliments on one another. It was exactly what he wanted.
The two one-time "outsider" candidates seemed comfortable posing for the cameras, cordial statues. They looked like establishment politicians—concealing the depths of their rancor and disagreement. Obama didn't shove his birth certificate in Trump's face, didn't call the man unqualified or a racist. As Obama's example illustrates, outsiders who win become insiders. In four years—or sooner—we'll see how fans of insurgent politics feel about President Trump as opposed to the Candidate Trump who won them over.
David J. Dent, an author and associate professor at New York University, holds a joint appointment at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute and in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. He is editor of the blog bushobamaamerica.com and the author of In Search of Black America.