Jim Bailey went to the polls Tuesday because he is convinced President Trump has put American democracy in grave danger of collapse. Rob Moyers voted because he believes Trump is the only thing saving the country from spiraling out of control.
Despite their deeply different political perspectives, Bailey and Moyers — like millions of others who voted Tuesday in midterm elections they might ordinarily ignore — shared the conviction that their country was at the precipice of a democratic implosion, and that their vote mattered.
On the surface, Bailey, 77, a retired Air Force officer in Glenville, W.Va., and Moyers, a 38-year-old itinerant worker in natural gas fields, share little more than a hometown. They watch politics on different channels, hold opposing views about immigration and believe the other side sorely lacks common sense.
But beneath their partisan positions, they care about many of the same things. They see their community ravaged by opioid abuse, pine for an answer to the constant hemorrhaging of jobs, and wish politicians would curb the name-calling and work with each other. And they have strong opinions about Trump, one way or the other.
Voters across the nation, energized by two years of the most divisive rhetoric in modern American history, said they were determined to send a message about how much the other side scares them.
This was an election brimming with paradoxes. In a country where nearly eight in 10 voters say the economy is doing well, a solid 54 percent of voters also believe that the nation is heading in the wrong direction, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll of 69 battleground districts. Over and over on a day when Americans appeared to make a split decision about control of Congress, people with wildly different perceptions of reality expressed a common belief that the country is in trouble and needs urgent care.
“We’re almost near a change in our form of government,” said Bailey, who added that he watches MSNBC from 6 a.m. to midnight and has concluded that the president “is bringing us into really troubled waters.” Bailey recently bought a thousand copies of the Constitution to distribute to his neighbors; on Tuesday, he said, he picked candidates who still seem to believe in compromise, a concept he said many of his neighbors now view with contempt.
By contrast, Moyers pronounced himself “all up for the Trumpster.” He said it’s been easier to find work extracting gas from the ground since the president cut back on regulations. “I was ready to sell my house if Hillary Clinton got in. We almost got into a fistfight over her at my family reunion.”
This was a day of venting anger and expressing hope. But the surge of voters on Election Day 2018 was also a sign that, despite a political system riddled with mistrust, many millions of Americans still believe in the ballot box as an effective voice. In early results from the Post poll, 44 percent of battleground voters said they felt hopeful on Election Day; in equal percentages, 37 percent felt angry or anxious.
Like the nation’s Founders, Tuesday’s voters were nervous about vesting too much authority in the hands of a centralized government. They were on guard against tyrannical rulers and more comfortable with the idea of checking politicians’ power than giving them free rein.
And like the Founders, many voters saw no reason to apologize for being loud and vituperative in defense of their views.
Those who have been against Trump from Day One came out in force.
“I f—ing hate Trump,” said Felipe Munoz, 50, a training specialist at a financial firm in Minneapolis. “I’m extremely mad. I had to go to therapy because of” Trump’s win.
The last straw for Munoz was the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. “When the kids were being incarcerated, that hit me to the core,” he said. “The world is crumbling. Everything seems to have gone wrong, very suddenly, in ways that I didn’t really expect. The only thing we can do is vote.”
Jeff Schuette, a 54-year-old stockbroker from Eagan, Minn., agreed this was a vital election, but he cast his ballot to bolster the president’s foundation. He said he chose only Republicans “to err on the side of liberty and freedom. I want less of the heavy thumb of the government on my neck.”
A holdout against Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination “until the bitter end” in 2016, Schuette had supported Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) before ultimately voting for Trump over Clinton in the general election. He’s pleased with Trump’s tax cut and “probably 75 percent of what he’s done. He does seem to be moving the needle . . . into a freedom direction.”
Despite gloomy wet weather in many places, voters queued for hours, either because they believe Trump is dynamiting the foundations of democracy, or because they believe forces arrayed against the president are blocking him from delivering the drastic changes he promised two years ago.
From left, right and center, the election was at least as much a referendum on Trump as a statement about particular national or local issues.
Trump’s brash, acid rhetoric sounds like creative disruption to his supporters, but comes off as narrowness and intolerance to those who find him alienating.
“We’ve all dealt with bullies,” said Taneisha Williamson, 35, a medical assistant in downtown Cleveland. “At the end of the day, being loud and screaming is not solving an issue. You may not like a person, but I can work with people I don’t like. I would like my president to be able to do the same.”
Trish Morgan, in contrast, voted to back up the “smartest president” she’s seen in her 51 years. Trump’s victory, she said, “was like a new beginning, a new chance.” She praises his hard-line immigration policies and admires his handling of the economy. She doesn’t believe any of the accusations of sexual misconduct that women have made about him. She doesn’t mind his insults either.
“Just because he’s a little crazy with his words doesn’t make him a bad person,” said Morgan, a product inspector at a medical manufacturer in Hudson Falls, N.Y. “He’s an individual that is not going to let anybody tell him what to say or what to think, and I respect him for that.”
Voter enthusiasm was perhaps loudest on the Democratic side.
“I’d just like to feel in control again,” said Riley Gunter, 19, a sophomore studying computer science at the University of Minnesota. “Just knowing that there’s something to balance out the Republicans controlling the Senate, Congress, just every branch of government.”
Those who don’t care for the far reaches of either party voted, too. Joe Panzarella, 42, a marketing event manager in Eagan, Minn., sees himself as “somewhere in the middle” politically, but said he felt compelled to send a clear message about Trump.
“He needs to be stopped,” Panzarella said. He called Trump “completely wrong — racist, against women, LGBT, immigrants.” He worries that the president’s inflammatory rhetoric is “getting out of hand” and inciting violence. He worries about Trump’s impact on his two young daughters.
Even some who normally steer away from Democrats decided they needed to make a statement by voting blue.
Steve Solomon, 61, a lawyer in Potomac, Md., said he had not voted Democratic in a while. But this time, he said, “I’m voting for anyone who is a Democrat.
“I think our president is a buffoon. He’s got an aversion to the truth,” Solomon said. “You got to send a message that Republicans didn’t stand up to the president. They did not hold him accountable.”
Many voters said the bonds that once held them to their party have frayed. Just as some Republicans rebelled against Trump, so has he won over some Democrats.
Roger Luzader, 67, a retired truck mechanic in Glenville, W.Va., said Trump “changed my politics. I used to be Democratic and now I don’t want to be associated with them. Everything that’s bad, they’re for — taxes, immigration, abortion. What Trump is, he’s a businessman. He speaks what’s on his mind and he’s doing the right things. You see it here, the signs say ‘Now hiring.’ What else do you want?”
Since Trump’s election, politicians and pundits have focused so powerfully on the polarization of the nation that many people assume Americans are frozen in place, dueling constantly over Why Things Are So Bad and Who Must Be Blamed.
But national trends pitting red against blue mask individual shifts in attitude that have taken place over kitchen counters and in family arguments.
Some enthusiastic Trump supporters from 2016 now worry that the president’s manner is inappropriate and counterproductive, even if they like much of what he’s accomplished. And some longtime Democrats, initially appalled by Trump, have come to believe that his flavor of disruption and his dystopian vision of the country’s predicament might be just what America needs.
“I voted for Trump because I liked how he talked,” said Edith Ellingsworth, 70, a retired nursing home worker in Sand Fork, W.Va. A lifelong Democrat whose favorite president is still John F. Kennedy, Ellingsworth wishes she had her 2016 vote to do over. “I thought he’d bring back jobs or do something for the coal miners’ families. He just hasn’t helped.
“I hope people regret voting for him,” she said. “I know I do.”
Rebelling against Trump doesn’t necessarily mean leaving his party. James Woods, a lawyer in Cambridge, N.Y., an eclectic town with art galleries and a food co-op where Woods shops, grew up in a moderate Republican family. On Tuesday, he voted for Republicans for local offices, but voted against his party for Congress.
Congressional Republicans under Trump have become “compliant sheep,” said Woods, 68. “I was taught to respect the institutions of the United States and have value for them — all of which the president does not have.”
None of that led Woods to flip parties. Democrats have focused too much on big cities and coastal states, forgetting everyone else, he said — and the party is bound to lose the presidency again unless it finds a leader who appeals to middle America.
Denzil Sloan voted for Trump hoping he would fulfill the ideals of the tea party movement: Smaller government. No more deficit spending. A pullback from foreign conflicts such as those in Syria and Afghanistan.
When none of that came to pass, Sloan, a 62-year-old retired piano tuner in rural Gilmer County, W.Va., used his vote to embrace politicians who refuse to blindly follow a president he has come to see as unmoored from any principles.
“We need a border wall, and I’m with him on that,” Sloan said. “But he’s completely abandoned any effort to deal with the deficit, and he’s totally failed on foreign policy.” So Sloan voted for a mix of Republicans, Democrats and third-party candidates, searching for people who seemed likely to stand up to powerful interests like the pharmaceutical companies that have flooded West Virginia with prescription opioids.
Few voters spoke of finding inspiration from the candidates they supported. Instead, they said they voted defensively. Even some who were strongly committed to their party worried about the messages their side was sending.
Buzz Spiezio, a 72-year-old barber in the Upstate town of Greenwich, N.Y., is anxious about the future of his party, the Democrats. “They’re only talking about health care,” he said. “I don’t know if they got a message or not.”
The Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), have overstayed their welcome, Spiezio said. Somebody younger needs to step up, but he hasn’t seen any inspiring figure, no one who moves him as Kennedy did.
Few voters expected this election to repair the political divide. But some held out hope that a bitter atmosphere could be dissipated by a revival of comity. That optimism, largely absent in this year’s campaign, remains at the core of many Americans’ sense of self and country.
Lillian Alston, 89, a volunteer at a food bank in Chapel Hill, N.C., sat in the basement of St. Joseph C.M.E. Church, helping visitors who came by for donated peppers, bananas and baked goods because they didn’t have enough at home.
“I’m not going to tell no lie: I don’t like the president,” said Alston, a retired day-care teacher. “I don’t like the way he talks and the way he treats people.”
But Alston tries to treat everyone the same at the food bank and said she sees a lesson there.
“I don’t always feel like it, but I always treat them with good respect,” she said. “One day it could be me in that line or my children or grandchildren. I know a lot of people who say ‘I’m not going to vote, it’s not going to help,’ but I vote every year.
“Sometimes I feel I won’t make a difference, but I vote anyway.”
Kristine Phillips in New York; Donna St. George in Potomac, Md.; Torey Van Oot in Minneapolis; Jennifer Oldham in Denver; Kirk Ross in Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Jordan Heller in Cleveland contributed to this report.