Tuesday

August 22nd, 2017

Insight

Why Trump voters accept the good with the bad

Byron York

By Byron York

Published Feb. 24, 2016

WALTERBORO, South Carolina -- In a recent interview with Donald Trump, Fox News' Greta van Susteren posed a simple question from a viewer: "Why don't you act more presidential?"

"I will be changing very rapidly," answered Trump, fresh from his smashing victory in the New Hampshire primary. "I'm very capable of changing to anything I want to change to."

In South Carolina, where he won another important primary contest, Trump drew remarkable crowds; when a group called Lowcountry Sportsmen for Trump held an event for him early Wednesday evening at a remote and sprawling hunting area known as Dove Field, about an hour outside Charleston, 2,500 people turned out to see him, many driving an hour or more to a place that looked a little like the middle of nowhere.

Nearly everyone I talked to had decided to vote for Trump. Some had already voted. They were definitely on board. Still, after his sometimes flailing performance in last Saturday's contentious Republican debate in Greenville, many, like van Susteren's viewer, would like to see Trump act just a little more presidential.

Take, for example, Larry and Sherri Hoover, two newly retired State Department officials who live in Ridgefield. When I asked why they chose Trump over the other candidates, Larry said, "I feel like he tells the truth. He just tells it like it is." Sherri agreed.

I noted that some critics thought Trump went a little over the top at the debate. What did they think?

"I agreed with the premises of what he said, but he probably didn't need to say everything he said, to be honest with you," Larry answered.

"I thought that was a little bit much," Sherri added, mentioning Trump's comments about George W. Bush. "But he has no filter. He tells it like it is. That's what we like about him."

"I'm looking for a leader, a fighter, and a winner," said Bernie Bell, a retired Chamber of Commerce official from Charleston. "Here's what I thought about the debate: Trump was getting shot at from everywhere. I didn't agree with him on the part about George W. Bush, but I can understand why Trump did that. I'd like for him to be more presidential, I'd like for him to talk more about the issues. But when you're getting shot at from everywhere, you've got to respond."

"I wish he would be a little more southern in his genteel manner," Kathy Randall, a lawyer from Summerville who said she's likely to vote for Trump, said with a smile.

"He needs some gentility, for sure -- a big dose," added Randall's friend Hugh Merriman, an oncologist, who also intends to vote for Trump. "What is there to gain from bashing the Bushes? Jeb's done, I think. I don't see the benefit in that."

Even Trump's host and introducer, Ellie Thomas, a Mount Pleasant CPA who's with Lowcountry Sportsmen for Trump, took note of Trump's habit of taking things to the limit, and then a little beyond. "We say, 'You know, I don't know that I would have said that, but I'm sure glad he did,'" Thomas told the crowd.

The Trump who took the stage -- it was decked out with camouflage cloth and bales of hay -- spoke as if he might have heard the advice. In a stump speech cut down to about half an hour because of a tight schedule, Trump said everything he normally says, but he appeared to have dialed back the intensity just a little. At the end, some people wished he had spoken longer, which rarely happens when Trump delivers his usual one-hour-plus performance.

Here's a theory. Trump's supporters believe the United States is at such a precarious point in its history that they want to elect a leader who will take an entirely different approach to government, not just from Barack Obama but also from the Bushes who monopolized Republican presidential politics for more than a generation. They're willing to put up with some excess because Trump seems to be the only man who might truly be able to break out of the old mold. Yes, they would like to see him polish things up a little. But even in his roughest state, he's worth it, given what's at stake.

On the other hand, Trump's manner has prevented him from taking advantage of the huge opportunity that South Carolina presents to expand his base of support. When a candidate does something like win the New Hampshire primary by 20 points, people who aren't his supporters take another look at him. That moment is a chance to draw in new voters. After New Hampshire, Trump had that chance -- big time -- and the best opportunity for him to bring in those new voters was the Greenville debate. He didn't do it. It was another missed opportunity, like the debate he skipped in Des Moines.

One way to see that is not at Trump rallies, but at other candidates' events, where there are South Carolinians who have seriously considered supporting Trump but are now leaning elsewhere.

"Trump says what's in my heart," said one voter at a Ted Cruz event in Columbia last Tuesday. But after the debate, the man said, "My head says no." Off the record, casual talks with other Republican voters around South Carolina suggest that he is not alone. They appreciate Trump and are glad someone is saying what he is saying about immigration and other issues -- but they just can't bring themselves to support him.

Back at Dove Field, though, voters were willing to take the bad with the good in the hope that Trump will bring real change to American politics.

"That's Trump," said Tim Fensch, of Walterboro. "He's like everybody I've ever met from New York City. They're all like that. They get in your face, they're blunt, if you come at them, they double down on you. I mean, that's him."

"I want to make a statement," said Charles Perkins Dubee II, of Savannah, Georgia. "I like what he has to say."

"I think we need a stick of dynamite in Washington," said Drake Donahue, of Goose Creek. "I think he's it."

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