LATROBE, Pa. — Before midnight hit on Tuesday, it became clear to the regulars at Sharkey’s Cafe that their guy, Donald Trump, would become the next president. As Fox News flashed new numbers on the screen, they took turns excitedly yelling out the victories.
“If he wins, I want to change to CNN and watch them cry,” said Kevin Somers, 54, a long-distance trucker who was having a Coors Light with his ex-wife and some friends.
Somers and more than a dozen others waited for Fox News to call the race and for Trump to give his victory speech. A few more people arrived and ordered drinks and pizza. They waited for another two hours. Closing time arrived and the bartenders started turning off televisions and sweeping up popcorn.
“If Trump wins tonight, I’m done with alcohol,” said Shawn Gracie, 41, who lives in the area and was laid off from the Ford dealership in July. “And go back on my diet. I feel like crap.”
This bar in southwestern Pennsylvania is in the heart of Trump Country and for months has been plastered with Trump signs. Everyone there that night was cheering for Trump to win, even though hours earlier they had mostly come to terms with the fact that the polls were probably right, and that Hillary Clinton would probably be their next president.
While they love Trump, they hate Clinton even more — and, that night, she wouldn’t even allow them have a proper victory party.
Sitting in a booth, Margarita Rincon video-chatted with her daughter, who is a freshman at Kent State in Ohio. Rincon made a confession: She voted for Trump.
Her daughter, Margarita Douglas, groaned and rolled her eyes. She had begged her mother to vote for Clinton, telling her that Trump wants to deport immigrants like her and that he doesn’t respect women. Rincon immigrated to the United States from Colombia two decades ago and has been a citizen for many years.
“I tell her: I’m not illegal. That’s only illegal people,” said Rincon, 50, who works for a banquet facility.
Rincon then excitedly started chanting: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Her daughter responded: “Noooooo.” She then flipped her camera to show two of her friends, who were also disappointed in the Trump win. But Douglas didn’t request an absentee ballot and didn’t vote.
“Trump! Trump! Trump!” Rincon said again.
It was after closing time when Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta came on the screen and told her supporters to go home and wait.
“She is done,” Gracie said yelled. “Ain’t happening, Podesta.”
Gracie soon decided to head home. Others followed him. They were sure Trump was the next president, but they wouldn’t fully allow themselves to believe it.
It was a feeling that many wrestled with throughout the day.
Not far from this bar is a shrine to Trump and his movement, a farmhouse on state Route 982 that’s painted like an American flag. Standing in the yard is a 14-foot-tall metal Trump.
Throughout the day, Trump supporters cast their ballots at polling places across southwest Pennsylvania, then journeyed to the “Trump House.” Many felt that their lives were about to change, even though the media, polls and pundits were still insisting their candidate had no chance.
“I’ve never voted in my life until this,” said Dave Fisher, 49, who used to make good money salvaging metal and taking it to processing plants in the Pittsburgh area. He saw that work dry up eight years ago, forcing him to work construction and a host of odd jobs for a fraction of the pay. “There’s never been anyone I really cared about. He put a spark in everything; he makes you want to be an American again, and that’s what I’ve been looking for.”
Fisher voted with his wife in their town of Belle Vernon early in the morning before driving about an hour northeast to the Trump House, and as they watched car after car pull into the makeshift parking lot near the pop-up political shrine, the couple said they didn’t understand how he could lose.
“Everyone I talk to is Trump; very few are Hillary,” said Charlotte Fisher, 52, an EMS communications officer. “In our neighborhood, everything is Trump.”
The Trump House — owned, run and financed by Leslie Rossi, a mother of eight who owns more than 60 properties in the area — is equipped with spotlights and security cameras but no televisions. Those lingering in and around the house got their news from phones, scrolling through Facebook postings and text messages, and as the morning went by, the news seemed so uniformly good for Trump that Rossi and a few volunteers would quickly correct anyone who didn’t express 100 percent certainty that he would win.
“I hope he wins,” said Carlotta Harris, 70, who lives nearby and stopped by about 11 a.m. to get a yard sign to plant near her polling place.
“Get rid of the hope,” said Barry Kinsey, a military veteran who volunteers at the house. “He will be president. I know it. I know it in my military mind.”
As morning gave way to afternoon, though, optimism began giving way to suspicions of fraud, and some people began slowly building a case for why Trump might lose.
There was a flurry of phone calls from people who heard that a polling station near St. Vincent College was making voters hide their Trump gear because it might be considered electioneering at the polls, although the poll workers stopped doing so after a series of complaints. There were stories — usually heard from someone who heard it from someone else — about malfunctioning voting machines. And there was even a vague report that some polling place in this county had voting machines removed for an unknown reason.
Joyce Vargulish, a 77-year-old housekeeper who has worked for the same family for 54 years, said she heard from her boss about a woman he knows who claimed that her vote for Trump was mysteriously changed.
“She voted straight Republican. When she pulled the lever, it said: ‘Thank you for voting Democrat,’” said Vargulish, even though such a display does not appear when voting here. “I told all of my family, because a lot of them never voted before, and I told them to be careful.”
Vargulish said that she wears a Trump shirt every day, except for when she goes to church, and that her front yard is filled with Trump signs. Her daughter, she said, assured her that Trump would win in a landslide, but she was increasingly worried that he might lose.
“It’s not about him. It’s about her. I just cannot see her being president,” Vargulish said, referring to Democrat Hillary Clinton as a yellow school bus rolled past with a handful of young boys hanging out the windows and chanting: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Richard Larrabee, 69, overheard Vargulish and jumped in to share something that he had heard about Clinton: “I just heard this morning that she’s taking illegal immigrants on a bus from California, got them voting there, taking them to Nevada to vote again.”
Rossi, the owner of Trump House, who has no affiliation with Trump’s campaign or the Republican Party, has formed a relationship with Trump supporters in the region by handing out thousands of free Trump hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers and other merchandise. She has registered hundreds of people to vote and counseled those who have been told that they are deplorable for supporting Trump.
“I don’t need Mr. Trump to tell me there’s media bias or voter fraud, I have proof of it all around me in my small community,” Rossi said. “It’s in my face. It’s real.”
The sun set, polls in other states closed and the initial optimism of the day, which had been supplanted by suspicion, was now changing again, this time into anxious excitement.
Rossi celebrated having had 1,000 people visit so far since sunrise and sign her guest book. As the flow of cars was reduced to a trickle, she and two of her regular volunteers grabbed a Trump sign and went down to the road to wave at cars. Car after car honked.
“If they don’t blow, they’re Hillary people,” she explained.
As yet another car honked, Midge Stein, a 69-year-old Democrat who supports Trump, announced to the two other women: “I think he’s going to take it.”
A car from Pittsburgh pulled up carrying Michael Loomis, a 52-year-old computer programmer who voted for Trump, and his friend, John Cihon, a 42-year-old utility company employee who voted for a third-party candidate. As soon as they arrived, Cihon sent a friend a text: “I’m at the Trump House . . . There are no words.”
Loomis wore a T-shirt labeling him a “proud member of the basket of deplorables,” and he introduced himself as “a gay supporter of Trump.” He said that he was frustrated by the Affordable Care Act and that he liked Trump’s tough stance on fighting Islamic State terrorists. He also said he liked Trump and described him as “not completely stable,” but in a good way.
And then he said something that broke through the excitement: He wasn’t sure that Trump would win.
He had been watching the early-voting numbers, especially in Florida, and, to him, Clinton just seemed so far ahead.
“We won Florida,” Rossi told him. “We won in like a huge, huge way.”
“Trump won Florida?” Loomis said. “I can’t believe that.”
Loomis pulled up RealClearPolitics on his cellphone. The state had not been called yet — Rosso was wrong about that — but Trump was up with about 25 percent of votes having been counted.
“I mean, if he carries Florida, he’s going to win this election,” Loomis said. “I did not expect him to win.”
Just then, Cihon got a text and announced: “He’s winning the general right now.”
Loomis hit refresh and saw the same thing in the preliminary results.
“Trump is ahead by 3 percent of the popular vote right now,” he said. “And that’s a lot of the popular vote.”
They stood there, hitting refresh over and over. With only a few hours to go until all of the polls closed, they were sure that it was only a matter of time. Trump was going to win. Everyone at Trump House believed it. Their lives really were going to change.