It’s a choice between two sides of a poop sandwich. If you’re a political candidate, and that’s how the difference between you and your opponent is described – by a supporter of yours – you’ve got trouble ahead. Such was the case for Hillary Clinton.
The feces analogy came to me from a female voter in Elm Grove near the end of a long Tuesday I spent visiting polling sites throughout Milwaukee and Waukesha, talking to random voters about who they chose and why. It started under blue skies and sunshine at Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education at 8:30 a.m. and ended at another school, Lincoln Avenue Elementary, amid darkness and chill as polls closed at 8 p.m. The first and last stops were reliable Democratic territory – the Obama school in an African American neighborhood, Lincoln in a heavily Latino district – and I fit in visits to the heavily white, Republican burgs of Sussex and Elm Grove in between.
Here are some takeaways, with the caveat that, as always, anecdotes do not equal data:
- Where’s the Passion? In many elections, one candidate has the clear edge in enthusiasm, and it becomes quickly apparent in exit polling. In this one, for me, both candidates seemed in competition for who had the least passionate supporters. I saw no pantsuits or red hats at the polls, and got almost uniformly glum answers when I asked about the candidates. I thought a giant handpainted sign I passed in Brookfield captured the spirit well: “Think Supreme Court/Vote Trump.” It was all practical, not inspirational. I tried to coax some praise out of each candidate’s supporters. For Hillary, about the best I got was: “I just find her to be more reasonable” (38-year-old in Elm Grove). And Trump? “I just felt we needed to have someone who’s not a seasoned politician to challenge the establishment” (24-year-old in Sussex). Hope and change, this was not. When I’d ask about the other candidate, the passion faucet burst forth, with vitriol to spare. Trump “scares the fucking shit out of me,” said a lifelong Elm Grove Republican who voted Hillary. Hillary is “a liar, a thief and a cheat,” said a lifelong Milwaukee Republican who voted Trump. Liberal complaints about the media creating a false equivalency between the sins of Hillary and Donald was absolutely on full display. Even some diehard Democrats saw little daylight between the two in ethics, honesty or sleaze, which I found particularly true among African-American voters. Could Hillary have turned that tide a bit with more visits to the state? Perhaps. We’ll never know. What was clear: the somewhat cartoonish portrait of her as ceaselessly self-serving and corrupt had become ingrained in many voters’ minds.
- Finish The Sentence: This election was … “the worst in my lifetime” (64-year-old in Milwaukee); “very wicked” (83-year-old in Sussex); “a circus, except meaner” (52-year-old in Sussex); “a joke” (24-year-old in Sussex); “I don’t want to give either one of them my vote” (20-year-old in Milwaukee); “pretty exhausting” (37-year-old in Sussex); “shitty” (50-year-old in Sussex).
- Split The Ticket: I came away from my day of random interviews confident Clinton would carry Wisconsin, as I met a handful of Republicans who voted for her and no Democrats who voted for him. Clearly, I talked to the wrong people and didn’t account for the many who stayed home. But my instincts were right that Ron Johnson would prevail in his allegedly tight U.S. Senate race against Russ Feingold. Ticket-splitting was rampant among Republicans and independents in Waukesha, and no one had a bad word to say about RoJo. Any effort to tie him to Trump and taint him in the process seemed to fall flat.
- And on the Bright Side: In Elm Grove, a tepid Hillary supporter said she teared up in the booth, unexpectedly, thinking of all the history that came before and the more wide-open future Clinton’s candidacy portended for her daughter, and choked up again recounting the story to me. My day ended talking to a 25-year-old woman and her 69-year-old father, both natives of Mexico, who signed up and voted for the first time on Tuesday. They arrived in Milwaukee 14 years ago and, despite now being citizens, had never voted. Trump made them do it, “because of all the things he’s been saying, not just about Hispanics but about everyone,” the young woman said. How did it make her feel? “Very angry.” In that, she had plenty in common with every other voter I met. Our democracy needs couples counseling.