Eight years ago, they voted for the outsider, the excitingly different candidate who dared to say that the system wasn’t working, the man who spoke of hope and change.
This year, they’re voting for the outsider, the excitingly different candidate who dares to say that the system isn’t working, the man who promises to make America great again.
They are Obama-Trump voters, and though the concept strikes many people in both parties as kind of weird, the people making those choices say they’re being quite consistent. In 2008, they wanted someone to shake things up, put the focus back on the middle class, reverse the country’s depressing sense of decline and stick it to the powers that be. This year, they still want the same things.
When a silver-tongued young senator from Illinois electrified huge crowds at rallies across the country in 2008, Lynette Anderson, a high school teacher watching from home in Kenosha, Wis., thought: “This is a guy who can move mountains, especially on race relations. He wasn’t entrenched, and I felt he had nothing to lose. As the first black president, and someone pretty new to the Washington political game, I thought he would take care of stuff, break some china.”
But President Obama disappointed Anderson, who is now a guidance counselor at a pre-engineering high school. “He turned out to be the same old same old,” she said. The candidate who spoke eloquently on behalf of people who had been left behind by technological and economic change, who pledged to unite a polarized nation, turned out to be just another politician who couldn’t push through the paralysis in Washington, Anderson said.
She thinks Donald Trump can do that. “I trust him,” said Anderson, who is 51. She generally votes for Republicans for president and Democrats in local and state elections; as a teacher, she finds the GOP too eager to cut efforts to lift children out of poverty and into career tracks. Her choice this fall has little to do with party and more with who will find a way forward for the nation’s middle — people like her who make $100,000 a year but feel like the country is building a future designed just for rich people. She is looking, she said, for strength.
“Trump could clean house,” she said. “It has nothing to do with him being a billionaire, and I know the president doesn’t have carte blanche to change things, but Trump’s got some muscle to make people make deals.”
Even amid the chaotic tribulations of the Trump campaign in the weeks since the Republican convention, a solid base of supporters has remained devoted to the candidate. These core voters say Trump’s controversial comments about the parents of a fallen Muslim American soldier, sexual harassment and Republican Party leaders don’t diminish their support but rather bolster their belief that Trump, like Obama eight years ago, is the candidate of change.
Survey data doesn’t provide a clear picture of how many Obama ’08 voters are in the Trump camp this year. In 2012, 9 percent of Obama’s 2008 voters flipped over to cast ballots for Republican Mitt Romney, according to data analysis by American National Election Studies, a collaboration between Stanford University and the University of Michigan.
At Trump rallies and in interviews with Trump supporters, people who voted for Obama eight years ago are easy to find, if sometimes a bit sheepish about the choice they made back then.
“I guess I thought he’d try extra hard to make things right because he was the first black,” said Rodney Ouellette, 75, who owned a stationery store, a deli and a dry cleaner over the years and now repairs small appliances in Vernon, Conn. “I liked that he was different. But things just got worse.”
Ouellette said it’s been hard to watch as businesses close and employers vanish from his part of Connecticut, northeast of Hartford. When Trump talks about the impact of illegal immigration, the sense of diminished security in the country and the conversation-constricting impact of political correctness, that hits home with Ouellette.
“Things are going to the dogs,” he said. “Maybe he can do something about it.”
But Ouellette’s not certain a Trump presidency would succeed: “He is a businessman who knows how to finagle deals, but he is a little erratic. Crazy, maybe. A lot of people would like to vote for him, but they’re hesitating because of the way he talks, like asking Russia to get the emails about Hillary. I don’t know if he just says what he thinks people want to hear.”
Despite his doubts, Ouellette supports Trump because the candidate isn’t afraid to stand up to the Black Lives Matter movement “and just say what’s obvious, that all lives matter.”
Ouellette mostly votes Republican, but many Obama-Trump voters have called themselves Democrats most of their lives. Party-switching has become less common in recent years, as the electorate has come to reflect the ideological polarization that’s also evident in the parties’ shifts away from the center and in many Americans’ media diets. But Trump challenges the way some voters think about the two parties, just as Obama’s historic candidacy in 2008 reached beyond the Democratic base with its message of change and its opportunity to elect a relative newcomer and the nation’s first black president.
A spokesman for the Trump campaign declined to comment.
Timothy Moore, an oncologist in Columbus, Ohio, said that as a Democrat who was deeply disillusioned by President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, he initially perceived Obama as a breath of fresh air. “I bought into the hope and change business,” said Moore, 61 — but he was disappointed because Obama failed to “change the dynamic where the executive and legislative branches just haven’t worked together.”
The physician is proud to have voted for George McGovern, the antiwar Democrat who lost in a landslide in 1972, and for Ronald Reagan, the Republican who won the presidency eight years later. He picks candidates based not so much on ideology but on whether he thinks they can get things done. Working for six years at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, Moore said, he learned how hard it is to shift the government’s direction, and he thinks Trump is far more likely to do it than Hillary Clinton.
“He’s straightforward, he speaks his mind,” Moore said. “Sometimes I wish he’d shut up, but at least he speaks. Hillary never has unscripted press conferences like he does. She’s totally scripted.”
That said, Moore cringes at some of what Trump says: “What would Freud say? His superego doesn’t filter things out the way it should. He speaks without thinking, and then he doesn’t back down. It bothers me that he doubles down every time he’s caught saying something wrong. But he’s not dangerous like some people say. Really, the president sets the tone, but he can’t do things by himself. He can’t nominate some wack job to the Supreme Court, because he has to get approval from the Senate.”
Moore is still enough of a Democrat that if Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) had won the nomination over Clinton, he said, “I really would have had to think hard about who to vote for. I don’t agree with him on a lot of issues, but I trust him. I know his principles.”
Questions about Clinton’s trustworthiness are sometimes a big part of why former Obama voters choose Trump. Vinny Pechy, who does electrical work on construction sites near his home in Sussex County, N.J., in the state’s northwest corner, is drawn to Trump for the same reason he liked Sanders: “The trust thing, his values.”
“I’m fed up with the old, fat, white, gray-haired men who run things,” said Pechy, who is 56. “I’m white, but those guys are about entitlement, and Hillary falls right into that category, even though she’s not a man.”
Pechy supported Obama because he spoke stirringly and seemed to get the frustrations of the middle class. “I actually liked the idea of some kind of health care in this country,” Pechy said. “The costs were out of control.” He thinks Obama actually “hasn’t been too bad. Hey, he pulled off the health care.”
But this time, he’s looking for “someone who’s not a politician. It’s like an experiment: I want to see if he can really do anything.”
Trump’s tendency to insult people and make outrageous comments might make him a better president, Pechy figures. “Sure, he’s extreme sometimes,” he said, “but maybe that lets him get something done to bring in some jobs.” Pechy has heard the accusations that Trump is anti-Hispanic or anti-black or anti-immigrant, but “that’s probably exaggerated, just like what they say about Hillary is exaggerated,” he said.
“Trump just says things, like he’s going to build a wall. You know he’s not going to build a wall, and he certainly won’t get Mexico to pay for it, but it shows he wants to be different, get something done.”
Although Pechy, as a union laborer, gets steady work and has a pension to boot, he worries about his 19-year-old son’s future. He wonders whether there will be any path to success for American kids without college degrees.
Pechy never went to college yet built a thriving career. “When I was coming up, blue-collar, middle-income people could work,” he said. “Now all these rich people are sending the jobs overseas. We can’t all work in an office. How many people can sit behind a desk? You got to make something, man.”
Pechy usually votes for Democrats, in part because Republicans seem like they’re for the rich and because they’re “always telling women what they can do with their own bodies.” But Trump appeals to him because “he’s going to try to do something a little different. I’m a little rough around the edges myself, and with him it would be fun. I’m not into that ‘your forks should go on the left and your knives on the right’ thing.
“I don’t know that Hillary would make it worse, but I don’t think she can fix anything. With Trump, maybe. I’m not looking for status quo. I’m hoping the boat gets rocked.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.