Donald Trump can win.
Sure, the polls show him lagging behind Hillary Clinton nationally. They find him trailing in many battleground states, And he’s neck and neck in states such as North Carolina that went Republican last time and that he needs desperately.
But if the presidential race in its fall rush focuses on the fear people feel about the economy and security, he still has a chance.
Ask voters in Wake County, which includes Raleigh and its surrounding areas, what issues are most on their minds and they rarely recite the topics dominating social and mainstream media. The county has voted for the presidential winner in all but two elections since 1960, and virtually no one brings up building a U.S.-Mexico wall or temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country.
They badly, even desperately, want change, and Trump’s potential is as their agent of change.
The Republican nominee’s image as unpredictable and volatile means many potential voters won’t even consider his ideas to ease the worries that trouble them most.
Clinton gets higher marks in polls on experience, leadership and ability to handle the economy. But her advantage is not overwhelming, and distraught independent voters are searching hard for fresh approaches.
That’s why voters such as Connor Fraley lean toward Trump. He recalls how his parents were both laid off at different times in recent years. “The government didn’t do anything,” the North Carolina State University sophomore said.
Voters see little evidence that it will. “I have a strange feeling nothing is going to change,” said Nicholas Fenty of Cary, whose airline job was eliminated four years ago and who is backing Clinton.
Trump can do well if he convinces voters he can competently improve the economy and the health care system, said Jason Husser, the director of the Elon University Poll, which surveys North Carolina voters.
He has to show he doesn’t have an immediate answer but that he can figure it out.
Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll, on Trump and the economy
The numbers say North Carolina is doing fine.
Its July unemployment rate of 4.7 percent was better than the national rate of 4.9 percent. But look closer: The economy nationwide grew at an anemic 1.1 percent pace in the second quarter of this year, following 0.8 percent growth in the first quarter.
In interviews with nearly three dozen voters in Wake County, people time and again talked about job security. They see health care costs rising and their choices shrinking; health care is the issue that most rattles current and potential Trump supporters.
Cherie Francis, a marketing manager from Cary who’s backed Republicans recently but did support Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, has seen her premiums double and has been forced to change doctors since Obamacare became law.
Karen Williams, an IT company engineer from Fuquay-Varina, works for a company that rewarded nonsmokers. It provided coverage that cost a penny a month for a family of four, and other benefits.
Under Obamacare, the firm offered a variety of health plans and incentives that would lower costs, but Williams’ family of four now had to pay $264.57 as a monthly premium.
What can Trump do? “He’s a businessman, and he can see how the health care landscape has changed,” Williams said.
He can get a better deal.
Karen Williams, a Wake County voter, on Trump and the health care system
The Trump campaign’s hope is that discussions of these issues will dominate the national dialogue in the weeks ahead. They want a discussion of how so many people have not yet recovered, financially or psychologically, from the 2007-09 recession, the nation’s worst in 70 years.
Clinton and Trump are running ads in swing states such as North Carolina promoting their tax and jobs programs, ads that also bash the opponent’s ideas. The trouble is, that discussion is drowned out by the nearly daily drumbeat of controversy.
Come on, say voters. Talk about my life.
Dr. Brett Hightower, a chiropractor in Raleigh, said that while immigration issues were important, details would ultimately be worked out by lawmakers next year, so focusing too heavily on specifics now was pointless.
He’s more concerned with too much regulation. “I’m a small business owner who worries that I’m committing infractions I don’t even know about,” he said.
What’s needed, said Michele Woodhouse, a medical sales representative from Raleigh, is “someone who can run the country like a business, because it is a business.”
The challenge for Trump is whether his incendiary personality is so offensive to swing voters that they won’t consider his views on health care or the economy.
Trump leads Clinton by 45-43 percent in North Carolina, according to the Aug. 27-29 Emerson College Poll. Gary Johnson has 8 percent and Jill Stein 2 percent.
“Trump scares me because he’s a loose cannon and bigoted demagogue,” said Roger Ehrlich, an independent voter and artist from Cary. “On Election Day, I want to see who is less likely to get us into an escalation that will lead to World War III.” He’s no fan of Clinton, either, and is sympathetic to the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Trump’s best bet is to convince people such as Cody Long, a North Carolina State University student who’s a fan of both Obama and President George W. Bush. But Long illustrates why Trump still has a hard road ahead.
An unaffiliated voter, the senior political science major said he “loves” both because “they both had the best of intentions.” Long looks for authenticity, arguing that in the end, their policies are not all that different.
That’s debatable, of course, and authenticity can go too far if a candidate is authentically rude. That’s why he’s soured on Trump. Long’s mother is part Mexican, and Trump has insulted Mexicans.
He saw his 8-year-old sister crying one day, asking her mother whether the family would have to go “back to Mexico.” That did it for Long. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a candidate who’s been so hateful,” he said.
He’s no fan of Clinton’s, though. “I’ll vote for her unless the Republican Party strips the nomination from Trump and gives it to (Sen. Marco) Rubio,” Long said.