RALEIGH, N.C.—There was no shortage of differences between recent rallies by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in this newly minted battleground state, but it was the thing they shared in common that stuck out most. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, every conversation came back to Trump’s unpopularity, his temperament, and whether he’s qualified to be president.
Take Mark Johnson, who was standing apart from the crowds waiting for Clinton’s rally at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds to begin. With his work boots, jeans, and trucker-style “N.C.” hat, the resident of suburban Apex could have fit in at a Trump event. Yet Johnson explained that while he was undecided about November, he was sure of one thing: “I don’t like Trump.” The presumptive Republican nominee didn’t have enough business experience, wasn’t diplomatic enough, and wasn’t presidential, Johnson said: “He just runs off at the mouth.”
As we talked, though, Johnson seemed to be in the process of convincing himself to back Clinton. “Like with your group of friends, you’re not going to agree with everyone about everything,” he said. A self-identified independent, he supported Bill Clinton in the ’90s and saw him as a big asset for Hillary. And anyway, Johnson reasoned, Trump hadn’t offered any plans for how he’d carry out his proposals.
Not everyone was lukewarm. Gail Wiesner, a Raleigh resident, said she’d been a superfan since she lived in Arkansas during the days when Clinton was first lady, and proudly wore an “I voted for Hillary’s husband” button in 1992. But time and again, the rationales voters offered for supporting Hillary turned out to be rationales against voting for Trump. Jose San Martin told me he “loved” Clinton. But when I asked what attracted him, the conversation just as quickly turned to Trump. San Martin, who was sporting a “Duke Class of 2020” shirt, lives in Fuquay-Varina, south of Raleigh, but he’s originally from Mexico. Right now, he’s on a student visa, but wants to become a citizen—and for that, “I need a Democrat,” he said. San Martin didn’t mince words about Trump. “I don’t agree with anything he does,” he said. “He’s a racist. People say he’s not, but come on, he wanted to ban all Muslims!”
One might expect that people at a Trump event would be unequivocal about their candidate. But they have their hesitations, too. At a big rally in Greensboro last week, one woman wouldn’t to let me quote her by name. “I’m not ready to come out as a Trump supporter yet,” she said with a sheepish grin. (Although Trump has been using the media as a punching bag for months, something had changed at this event. More than at any other Trump rally I’ve covered, attendees declined to talk to me, and one of Trump’s biggest applause lines came when he boasted of refusing to credential reporters from The Washington Post.)
The recognition of how toxic Trump’s reputation has become isn’t lost on his strong supporters. “There’s never going to be a perfect candidate, but Donald Trump is the strongest candidate out there,” Bijan Vaziri told me off the bat. “Donald Trump says some out-there things—we all know he does—but he’s not a career politician.”
More than anything, Vaziri was skeptical of Clinton, who he viewed as essentially dishonest. Like many attendees, he was a veteran, having served in the Marines. He was frustrated by a culture of “political correctness” that he blamed on leftists who were unwilling to respect differing opinions. But he wasn’t a typical small-government conservative. He lamented the state of the economy in his hometown of Winston-Salem, but he thought the answer wasn’t the private sector, but making the public sector better. “What I believe it is, over the last two generations, we’ve said, ‘Forget the government,’” he lamented. It was time for people to come together to repair the national project, he said. Vaziri had frustrations about the way the government was run, but he recognized its value. (He pulled up a pantleg to reveal a prosthesis he’d gotten at the VA.) In fact, he was thinking of going to law school and entering public service, and he spoke in crisp soundbites—with more discipline, perhaps, than his chosen candidate.
Come November, the deciding factor could be whether Trump scares enough voters into either staying home or backing Clinton to hand her the win. The fact that North Carolina is now viewed as a swing state underscores how Trump’s toxicity is turning voters off. Two polls a month ago showed Trump up by narrow margins in the state, which Barack Obama won narrowly in 2008 but lost in 2012. It is deeply polarized, meaning the outcome could hinge on whether Republicans turn out more rural voters or Democrats turn out more urban ones. The Clinton campaign included North Carolina in a recent ad blitz in swing states, and it expects frequent campaign visits.
Even the state’s standard bearers in each party demonstrate the ambivalence. Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who is up for reelection, endorsed Trump through gritted teeth, saying he backed his party’s nominee. Neither McCrory nor Senator Richard Burr, who’s rumored to be on Trump’s vice-presidential list and also up for re-election, showed up in Greensboro. On the Democratic side, neither Attorney General Roy Cooper, who’s running against McCrory, nor Deborah Ross, who’s up against Burr, showed up for Clinton in Raleigh, each sending regrets. Presidential coattails could affect both the gubernatorial and Senate races, but no one seems quite sure how. Clinton was instead introduced by former Democratic Governor Jim Hunt to enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
In most other respects, the two rallies provided a study in contrasts. Trump’s evening rally was larger, with a reported attendance of more than 9,000 (similar to what Bernie Sanders gathered in the same space in the fall). Clinton drew a more modest 2,000 at midday. The soundtrack in Greensboro was Trump’s signature playlist; Clinton attendees were treated to a live gospel band, whose sound boomed around a barn-like space. More than a few attendees waited for Clinton with fingers plugging their ears.
Although he gave a carefully scripted speech in New York on Wednesday assailing Clinton as corrupt, Trump’s more typical mode is free-associative and free-wheeling. He meandered at will through various topics in Greensboro—delivering a spoken-word rendition of Al Wilson’s “The Snake,” mocking his primary opponents, strangely accusing U.S. soldiers of stealing Iraq reconstruction funds.
Clinton, meanwhile, is relentlessly on message. She was charged up and energetic, which she attributed to the “grandmother glow” of her newborn second grandchild. But her material was on the wonky side. Following on a speech she delivered in Ohio on Tuesday, Clinton was focused on her economic plans. She laid out a four-point agenda: A major jobs-stimulus package; debt-free college; discouraging offshoring and encouraging corporate profit-sharing; and increasing taxes on banks and the wealthy.
There isn’t much fresh in Clinton’s economic plans. She gave her first major economic speech of the campaign nearly a year ago, in July 2015. At the time, she was drawing contrasts with Bernie Sanders; these days, she’s figuring out how to incorporate some of his ideas into her own platform. The Clinton campaign’s struggle to settle on a single, snappy slogan—the current champ is “Stronger Together”—has been well-covered, but there’s a parallel situation on policy. In that July 2015 speech, Clinton heavily emphasized what she called “quarterly capitalism,” the phenomenon of corporations putting short-term shareholder returns over long-term investment. In Raleigh on Wednesday, she returned to the theme, but the phrase was nowhere to be found. Apparently it hadn’t taken, either.
Of course, just because ideas aren’t new doesn’t mean they’re not good. There’s widespread support in liberal and centrist economic circles—and among some Republicans, including Trump—for greater infrastructure investment, though her promise of “the biggest investment in American infrastructure in decades,” exceeding even the 2009 stimulus, is notable. Besides, Clinton has the benefit of not having to argue against specific ideas proposed by Trump; instead, she assails him for lacking any plans at all.
“The self-proclaimed ‘King of Debt’ has no real ideas for making college more affordable or addressing the student debt crisis,” she said. “He has no credible plan for rebuilding our infrastructure, apart from his wall. He has no real strategy for creating jobs, just a string of empty promises. Maybe we shouldn’t expect better from someone whose most famous words are, ‘You’re fired.’”
Even though Trump had unleashed his attack against her earlier in the day, she took her time replying to him. Early in the speech, she subtly sniped at his claim that nothing was known about her religion, saying her ideas about economic justice were “rooted in the values I learned from my family and my faith,” stressing the last word. “As we Methodists say: Do all the good you can to all the people you can in all the ways you can,” she added.
This sort of speech can be a little tough going for a crowd, even with the occasional sharp jab (“We need to write a new chapter in the American Dream—and it can’t be Chapter 11”), but Clinton seems to truly enjoy these bullet-pointed, numbered lists. Right now, the race is playing right into her hands. As long as Trump is making Republicans nervous and Democrats either terrified or furious, Clinton doesn’t have to rile up her crowds. She just has to look like a viable alternative.