The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Virginia, a state of political separation: Most Clinton voters don’t know any Trump voters, and vice versa

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (AP)

— Joshua McDonald, a conservative Christian who lives in reliably Republican territory between Washington and Richmond, supports Donald Trump for president. He doesn't know a soul who's for Hillary Clinton.

Ellen Tobey, an office manager in the liberal college town of Charlottesville, will vote for Clinton. She knows of no close friends or relatives planning to push the button for Trump.

When it comes to the 2016 presidential election, Virginians are divided way beyond what might be expected in a battleground state where the most recent polls give Clinton an edge.

Many voters seem entirely isolated from one another, living in their own bubbles of political agreement even in an increasingly diverse commonwealth, a Washington Post poll finds.

More than half the people who support one of the two major-party candidates say they do not have any close friends or family voting for the other. Fifty-four percent of voters in Trump’s camp say they have no Clinton supporters in their inner circles. And 60 percent of Clinton backers say they are not close to any Trump voters.

The poll also found cultural differences between Clinton voters and Trump voters, reflected in their ties to guns, gays and even hybrid vehicles.

How is that level of political isolation even possible in Virginia, where — no matter what the state of the horse race — Clinton and Trump both have supporters in the millions?

Clinton holds lead over Trump in new poll, but warning signs emerge

The phenomenon seems to reflect a decades-long demographic trend called “sorting,” through which Americans increasingly live in more-partisan enclaves, some social scientists say. The result looks a lot like the state’s starkly polarized political map, with its Northern Virginia suburbs and scattered urban centers colored deep blue, its rural regions dark red and precious few purple swing territories in between.

But the separation here seeps into the micro level, down to the particular neighborhoods, schools, churches, restaurants and clubs that tend to attract one brand of partisan and repel the other.

“You used to not be able to talk about politics at a polite dinner party because you would probably have a fight,” said Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland whose research focuses on the polarizing effect of partisan sorting. “Increasingly, you can talk about politics at a dinner party because most of the people at the dinner party probably agree with you.”

There is also a possibility that some Clinton voters are closer to Trump supporters than they realize, and vice versa. With an extremely polarizing pair atop the ballot, some voters say they are not talking politics with friends and family this year, to avoid heated arguments. Others are “in the closet” about their picks because they know they would be judged harshly by those on the other side.

“Amongst my friends, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Tobey, a Democratic-leaning independent who said that in 30 years of voting, she had never before avoided talking presidential politics.

Garrett Layton, a community-college student from Hampton Roads who expects to vote for Trump, said he keeps his preference under his hat for fear of being mocked. He noted that just last week, Clinton called “half” of Trump’s supporters “deplorables” who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” She later apologized.

“If I say I’m leaning toward Trump, I feel like people will think I’m this crazy man,” said Layton, 20.

This dynamic plays out even among voters who see both candidates as highly flawed and describe their picks as the lesser of two evils. Instead of commiserating across party lines over the lack of better choices, these voters cannot fathom how anyone could possibly support the other candidate — someone they consider not merely unpalatable but utterly unacceptable.

“Most people think that one of them is the devil and the other one is just slightly more acceptable than the devil,” said Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political scientist and director of CNU’s Wason Center for Public Policy.

“If you think Hillary Clinton should be in jail, how positively are you going to respond to somebody who says, ‘I love Hillary Clinton’?” Kidd said. “If you think Donald Trump is a complete idiot, how positively are you going to respond to somebody who says, ‘I love Donald Trump’? And because the answer is ‘not very’ in either situation, the less likely it is that you’re going to want to talk about it with someone you don’t want to have an argument with.”

One person not at all surprised by the political segregation suggested by the poll is Bill Bishop, author of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart." In that 2008 book, Bishop describes a trend that began with cultural preferences but wound up having political consequences.

“People moved into these places . . . where you could find your books in the bookstore, the kind of music you want at the club and the kind of food you want in the local grocery store,” he said in an interview last week. “There’s actually a good chart showing that conservatives want to live overwhelmingly where houses are farther apart even if you have to drive to schools or stores, and liberals want to live in a place that’s walkable even if the houses are smaller and you have a smaller lot. These lifestyle characteristics become overlaid with political characteristics. . . . It’s not surprising one wouldn’t know another on the other side.”

Liberals and conservatives value different traits in choosing where to live, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, though other research has found less evidence that Americans are flocking to politically distinct enclaves.

Cultural divisions between Clinton backers and Trump backers, made clear by preferences for different sports they watch and even the type of vehicles they drive, show up in the Post poll. The survey was conducted Aug. 11 to 14 among a random sample of 1,002 Virginia adults and 888 registered voters interviewed on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error is between plus or minus 8 and 9.5 percentage points for questions about the social circles of Clinton and Trump supporters, which were asked of random half-samples of respondents.

Clinton supporters are more likely to say they are close to someone who drives a hybrid vehicle and more apt to know somebody well who was convicted of a felony.

Trump supporters, on the other hand, are about twice as likely to have a gun in their household, more likely to know someone who drives a pickup truck and more apt to be close to a NASCAR fan.

Familiarity with someone who is gay marks one of the sharpest divides. Nearly 3 in 4 Clinton supporters say a family member or close friend is gay, compared with about half of Trump backers.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Post poll finds Clinton voters and Trump voters are about equally likely to say they have a family member or close friend of a different racial, ethnic or immigration status. Similar majorities of Clinton and Trump voters say they live in a military household or know people in the military, law enforcement or service industries such as restaurants or retail.

Many voters share something else — unease with both candidates. The Post poll found roughly 1 in 5 supporters of either candidate held an unfavorable impression of the one they preferred. Most offered positive ratings of their choice, though fewer than half felt “strongly” favorable toward them.

Tobey, the office manager from Charlottesville, is a case in point. While she plans to vote for the former secretary of state, she also called Clinton “a difficult person to like.” Yet she does not want to know whether any friends plan to vote Republican this year, even though she had no beef with those who did so in 2008 and 2012.

“It’s just too upsetting to me personally,” she said. “When I hear people talk about Donald Trump in a positive way, I just can’t physically stomach it.”

Jim Charleton of Alexandria is another Clinton voter who is no big fan of the Democrat but cannot get his head around anyone wanting Trump. So he avoids discussing the election with work acquaintances, the only people he knows in that camp.

“I just can’t believe they can actually consider him,” said Charleton, 62, a wastewater program manager for D.C. Water. “I kind of avoid it. And there’s not much point in getting into it.”

On the flip side of all that is McDonald, the Trump supporter with no Clinton fans in his orbit.

“I base all my beliefs and everything on the Bible,” said McDonald, 28, a power company meter technician and volunteer firefighter who lives in Caroline County. He said he disagrees with Clinton on several issues: He is opposed to gun control and abortion and wants to eliminate welfare except in cases of disability and extreme need. And he said it’s only natural that his family and friends share those views.

“I don’t know anybody voting for Hillary,” McDonald said. “Does it surprise me? No, not one bit. Just because of the area that I’m from and the way that I grew up, everything that she supports, none of it is what I support and what I was raised on believing in.”

In far southwest Virginia, Peggy Peters described Trump’s appeal as a given for anyone connected to coal, an ailing industry he has vowed to save. And pretty much everyone she knows has ties to it.

“My daddy, he’s a Trump man,” said Peters, 55, a Scott County auto detailer. “The reason why is, my daddy is a retired coal miner. And Daddy’s got a lot of friends that are retired from the coal mines. And they know a lot of people.”

In her community, Democrats seem like a rarity.

“I’ve noticed a lot of Trump signs around,” Peters said. “I have only seen one Clinton sign — one.”

Some voters remember a time when strict partisanship did not govern the way people voted — or socialized.

Charlotte Battles, 66, who lives in the Northwest Virginia community of Winchester, always thought Democrats were too generous with welfare, but she never used to question their good intentions. That has changed over past decade or two, she said, as the party has increasingly emphasized abortion rights as a campaign issue. Battles opposes abortion.

“You can’t even vote for a good Democrat anymore,” said Battles, a retired health-industry consultant. “You can say if a person believes in welfare . . . they’re good-hearted. They’re misguided. They mean well, but they’re dumb. There comes a point when you have to draw a line and say: ‘No, they’re not dumb. They’re evil.’ ”

So in November, she will vote for Trump — as will all of her friends.

“Most of the people I hang out with,” she said, “are not Democrats.”

Guskin reported from Washington. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.