Politics & Government

Why the election is so close and which voters will determine who wins

Mark Stout considers himself American-Mexican. He’s excited about electing Donald Trump.
Mark Stout considers himself American-Mexican. He’s excited about electing Donald Trump. The Wichita Eagle

Marsha Nelson Carr was going to vote for Gary Johnson for president.

But Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, couldn’t answer basic questions about foreign policy, she said. So she voted for Donald Trump instead.

“Here’s the deal with Trump,” said Carr, who is from Wichita. “He’s an idiot actually; he can’t keep his mouth shut. But I bet you money he can hire the right people.”

As the election nears, millions of Republicans are coming to the same conclusion as Carr: They may not like Trump, but he’s better than Hillary Clinton and there’s no other suitable alternative.

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That’s why most major polling averages, including RealClear Politics and FiveThirtyEight, have shown the race tightening. Traditional Democrats and Republicans have moved away from third-party candidates and are choosing their party.

This happened after the Democratic convention for Clinton, whose support has hovered around 45 percent since then. Brandi Lawrence of Kansas City liked Gary Johnson for awhile but ultimately voted for Clinton. She didn’t think Johnson had been vetted enough, and though she didn’t like Clinton, she hated Trump.

Trump’s support tanked several times, after the Democratic convention and after a video was released of him claiming to have sexually assaulted women. But his poll numbers have been trending upward in the past two weeks. Voters like Carr, who once said they were considering a third-party candidate, switched to Trump.

Others haven’t budged, though. Sheila Crabtree of Wichita voted for Evan McMullin, a conservative independent who is a write-in candidate in Kansas, because she thought his foreign policy experience was superior. Still, she said, her friends don’t understand supporting a third-party candidate.

“If you bring up the faults of one candidate, then immediately they say you are supporting the other candidate,” Crabtree wrote in response to a questionnaire by The Eagle on the Public Insight Network. “No I don’t like either. I can say no to both.”

Some Kansas voters are willing to vote for a third party because they are cynical about the impact of their votes: Kansas hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 50 years.

“It doesn’t matter if I vote anyway because Kansas’ electoral votes will go for Trump no matter who I vote for,” said Wichitan B.G. Bennett, who plans to write in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Wichita native. “They’re deplorable, both of them,” she said of the two major candidates.

Bennett is a Republican but said she would have voted for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders if he was running. So would Dallas Hewett, a pro-life military veteran from Andover who said he considers himself conservative but not extremely so.

“I used to be pretty much a ‘build a wall’ kind of person, but if you think about it it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Hewett said. “You can’t just throw immigrants out: their kids are citizens.”

Hewett wrote in McMullin for president.

Education, religion

Although many Kansans say they don’t like either candidate very much, the vast majority are expected to vote along typical partisan lines. A few groups are less predictable and could decide the election, according to pollsters.

In 2012 Republican Mitt Romney won about two-thirds of all white voters, regardless of their education level. Trump has done even better among white voters without a college degree, but Clinton has more support of white voters who graduated from college.

That’s why Trump is polling well in swing states like Ohio and Iowa, which have a large number of white voters without college degrees, but not as well in North Carolina and Virginia, where white voters are more highly educated. Trump is expected to do better among Republicans in rural Kansas than in Johnson County.

Trump’s chances could hinge on how many men like Blayne Beham, a 40-year-old IT worker from Wichita without a college degree, turn out to vote. Beham voted for Trump because he wants the country to be run more like a business. Robert McCabe, another Wichita IT worker, doesn’t like Trump much but voted for him anyway because he thinks he’s “the lesser of two evils.”

Local voters recently talked to Wichita Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison about who they're voting for in the presidential election and why. The opinions on the candidates were as unique as the people themselves.

Jerry Ashley of Wichita, who doesn’t have a college degree, isn’t sure if he’ll vote at all. Trump is too vulgar and seems to be a woman-hater, he said. But if he does vote, he thinks Trump is more likely than Clinton to lower the premiums for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which he says he is too poor to afford right now.

Clinton, on the other hand, has worked to woo Catholic women who live in the suburbs. In a recent poll, she leads among Catholic voters who attend church every week by 22 points. This is a big swing from 2012, when Catholic voters favored Romney slightly over President Obama.

Julie Nelson of Wichita, who typically votes conservative, said she doesn’t like either candidate but will definitely not support Trump. Whether Trump can win will depend in part on whether he can pull back a few more conservative Catholic voters, like Nelson, or draw even more evangelical voters than have typically voted Republican in the past.

Susanne Haynes, one of those evangelical voters in Wichita, likes Trump because she thinks Clinton will make her pay for abortions and will take away the guns in her home. She home-schools her twin boys. She has never voted for a Democrat.

Race, age

Kansas is in the top half of the country for the percent of citizens with a college degree, which is good for Clinton, but it’s also a lot whiter than the country as a whole.

Clinton continues to win the African-American vote and the Latino vote by large margins. But some early exit-polling shows that black voters might not turn out to vote as much as they did for Obama.

The effect of turnout could be even more important among millennial voters, many of whom voted for Sanders in the primary and have been slow to embrace Clinton.

Wichitan Tiffany Cribbs, 26, decided to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, because of how divisive the major political parties have been. Many of her older black relatives are supporting Clinton, she said.

Augustus Titcheno, 89, who is black, moved to Kansas from Arkansas when he was 15. He voted for Bill Clinton twice and said he’s been following the Clintons for years. “They say you can’t trust her, but I do,” he said.

The generational divide exists among Latino voters as well, sometimes in the opposite direction.

Maythe Hernandez, 24, a second-generation American, said she is afraid her friends and family who have lived in the United States for decades will be deported if Trump is elected. “Everyone is going to live in fear,” she said. She voted for Clinton.

Mark Stout, 62, whose grandfather moved from Mexico many years ago, supports Trump and calls himself an “American-Mexican, not Mexican-American.” His dad would not let them speak Spanish in the house, he said, and he doesn’t feel a connection to the country that his grandparents fled. The Wichitan thinks immigrants should go through the immigration process legally, like his family did, although he says the program needs reform.

This is the first time Stout has been excited by a candidate in a long time, he said. “It’s because we have a man who is going to put America first and not be a globalist, put America up on its feet again,” Stout said.

This kind of enthusiasm tends to drive turnout, which could sway an election this close.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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