One of Donald Trump’s ardent supporters, Dee Finley, sits outside a Conyers, Ga., soda fountain and shrugs off a week where the very physics of the presidential campaign seem to have shifted against the New York billionaire.
Ms. Finley, who is middle-aged and African-American, knows that Mr. Trump has struggled to pivot from winning the Republican primaries to confronting the national test of cobbling together a winning bloc of diverse Americans. His criticism of a Gold Star family, his refusal to back House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, and his false assertion that Russia would not go into Ukraine were among the lowlights of a rough week.
From Finley’s perch, though, the fundamentals of the campaign haven’t changed.
“He’s making some missteps because he’s fatigued from a year of campaigning,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s all a side show. The real question is whether I’m going to vote for him or I’m going to vote for the same establishment that’s been in Washington forever and ever and getting the same results. I’m going to vote for him.”
Yet in this county that went heavily for Trump in the presidential primary, undecided voters aren’t necessarily tipping his way. And statewide, the new headwinds he faces are visible in a Georgia poll taken after the recent Republican and Democratic conventions: The Channel 2 Action News survey shows Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton deadlocked at 45 percent.
Significantly, 56 percent of people who identified as independents favored Clinton. Trump is still the favorite to win this state, but some Democrats are whispering about Georgia shifting into battleground status.
The big question, both in this small city a half-hour east of Atlanta and in close-fought states nationwide like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is whether Trump can expand a core of support to a broad enough coalition to win.
“Within Trump’s core group of supporters the question of whether Russia is in the Ukraine or not, which exercised the Washington press considerably, is not really a central consideration in their support for Trump,” says Charles Franklin, who heads a political poll at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. “But, cumulatively, that and the Ryan issue and the Khan [Gold Star family] issue do have a substantial effect on those people who might vote for him but aren’t guaranteed to vote for him.”
Hints of trouble
Until this week, Tom White, a lean, tattooed, 30-something waiting for a ride outside the Rockdale County Courthouse, had not decided between Trump and Hillary Clinton. But Trump’s criticism of the family of an Iraq war hero who happened to be Muslim went too far.
“That was enough for me, I can no longer find it within myself to vote for him,” says Mr. White.
Gabriele Hunter, an 18-year-old selling peppers at the Conyer’s Farmer’s Market, is another formerly undecided voter who had a similar reaction.
“Only someone who has never known hard times would make statements like that, and it just underscores how he’d make stupid judgments” as president, she says.
Such visceral reactions to Trump’s comments – in which the candidate compared his sacrifices in business with those of a family that lost a son to war – may suggest a limit of his appeal.
“It seems like Trump has reached a ceiling [of] 40 percent plus or minus of the electorate … who think that any Democrat is the end of the world as we know it and who are connected with him on some psychological level,” says Michael Mezey, an emeritus political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. “But ... once you’ve solidified that base of support, you have to then expand it to get the people who are independent, who are not sure, who may be casual or intermittent voters, and he doesn’t seem to have any plan to do that. In fact, everything he has done seems to be designed to drive those people away.”
Standing behind 'true change'
Some are still on the fence.
“We’re not at a fork in the road, we’re at a crossroads,” says Craig Poole, a guitar shop owner who is still weighing both candidates. “We’re either going to make a hard left or a hard right.”
Renee Murphy, a nurse, figures that Trump, as president, “would probably do things that 90 percent of people are not going to like.”
But for her, and many others who say they’ll vote for Trump, the real issue isn’t Trump’s readiness for office, but whether he represents “true change” for a federal government that she believes has failed to protect the value of the American dollar and its national security interests.
“In my eyes, I’ll vote for the lesser of two evils, and that’s Trump,” she says.
Indeed, Mr. Franklin at Marquette University, notes that “people should be cautious about talking about a ceiling, because it’s pretty clear, at least in the primaries, that Trump was never limited by that ceiling, meaning that easy predictions about the limitations of his support should probably be looked on with some suspicion.”
Mr. White, the tattooed 30-something, says he has a similar suspicion.
“I think his candidacy is a joke, but that’ll be the punch line: He’ll win the thing.”