An 82-year-old one-time school custodian says he’s voting for Donald Trump even though “I hate to say it.” A 60-year-old woman, freshly retired from 3M, is enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton and frightened by the alternative. A 33-year-old mom of three wants in her heart to vote Libertarian, but her head says Clinton. A 20-year-old student, an aspiring dentist, is excited to vote for the first time but can’t make up his mind.
Welcome to Lake Elmo, in the heart of the Twin Cities’ politically divided Washington County. It’s a sort of small town in the suburbs, and voters in this east metro city of just over 8,000 people have consistently split their presidential choices nearly straight down the middle. Now that this endlessly eventful, impossible-to-predict presidential election of 2016 heads for the history books — no matter the outcome — the responsibility shifts to voters like these, in battleground communities all over the country.
Predictably, they’re split.
“I hate to say it, but Trump,” said Joel Eder, one of a small crowd inside the Lake Elmo Barber Shop on Lake Elmo Ave. Noting his family roots in this town date to 1857, Eder explains his own political affinities with this dated reference: “I started out as a Democrat. I was rather disappointed when Stevenson was not elected.” (Adlai Stevenson was the losing candidate for president in 1952 and 1956.)
His decision was motivated by distrust of Clinton, Eder said. But he’s not the only old-timer in town who’s still on a journey across the political spectrum. Paul Ryberg, 73, started as an “Eisenhower Republican” but now sees the Democrat as the only responsible choice.
“Hillary is pretty much all that’s left,” Ryberg said.
This year’s presidential race has revealed deep divisions in America’s political sympathies. National polls in this final stretch before Election Day have Clinton clinging to a small lead; the weekend brought barnstorming swings by both candidates and top surrogates in a small number of swing states most likely to tip the outcome.
Minnesota, reliably Democratic in presidential years and not a top focus this year for Trump or Clinton, was seeing little personal attention from the presidential contest. Competitive congressional and legislative elections brought a last burst of political activity by down-ballot candidates, volunteers and prominent state politicians not up for election this year, targeting dwindling numbers of undecided voters.
Here in Lake Elmo, contentious races for mayor and City Council have been stoked by divisions over the city’s long history of tightly managed growth compared to neighboring suburbs, and ensuing dysfunction in city government. Yard signs in local races use words like “transparency” and terms like “tyranny of the majority.”
Most of the more than a dozen people interviewed in Lake Elmo over two days late last week know how they’re voting, at least for president. A few already took advantage of early voting. But Beau Hafemeyer, a 20-year-old student at nearby Century College, is still vacillating in his first presidential decision.
“I was, for quite a while, thinking it was going to be Hillary,” said Hafemeyer, who has plans to transfer to the University of Minnesota and pursue dentistry. “But they reopened that investigation and that made me question it again. If I were to vote for Trump, which is entirely possible — something I never thought I’d say — it would be entirely because I can’t trust Hillary.”
It’s the same trust problems that have dogged Clinton in public polls throughout her bid. Most Trump supporters interviewed returned repeatedly to those concerns, acknowledging reservations with Trump’s well-chronicled faults and frequent controversies, but willing to take a chance on his vow to unsettle the established political order.
“I’m not 100 percent for a guy like Trump, but yeah, I’m more than 51 percent in his favor,” said Marty Quast, 39, who cuts hair at Lake Elmo Barber Shop with his father and its owner, Dale Quast. He said he voted for Bill Clinton in the ’90s but won’t do the same for the former first lady.
Pressed on what issues distinguish Clinton and Trump in his mind, Marty Quast first cited guns. A customer in the chair, Ron Swanson, said “we need a change” and repeated Trump’s go-to insult, “Crooked Hillary.” (For fans of the fictional, libertarian folk hero Ron Swanson of TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” yes, this one insists, that is his real name. )
Of the four regulars and two barbers in the shop, only one raised his hand when the room is polled for Clinton supporters. “I’ll definitely vote for Clinton,” said Tom Anderson, 78, a retired railroad worker. “Trump has so many flaws, it’s incredible, and most of what they claim about her has never been substantiated.”
Janey Scherek, a 20-year-old stylist at Establish Salon right next door — Lake Elmo has a lot of hair places — cited her conservative upbringing, mentioning opposition to abortion and support for low taxes, to explain her preference for Trump. “A lot of girls don’t like him. He’s for sure not the greatest, but I just believe in more of his qualities,” said Scherek, of Stillwater.
Headed in for a trim this day was Scherek’s grandmother, Jane Baggott. She laughed and rolled her eyes when told of her granddaughter’s vote.
At 76, Baggott still drives a school bus. A lifelong resident of the area, she favorably cited local Republicans like the local state senator, Karin Housley, now up for re-election. Baggott was reluctant to reveal her vote but was “definitely leaning” toward Clinton. She had seen Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, interviewed on the TV program “The View” that morning and had been impressed.
“I can’t stand that man,” Baggott, also of Stillwater, said of Trump. “He lies and lies and lies. Hillary says one lie, and he lies every time he opens his mouth, and she’s the liar?”
Baggott always hoped to see a woman president: “I don’t have many more votes left and I doubt a woman will be a choice again.”
A mild-to-deep fear of the implications of a Trump presidency is motivating more than one Clinton supporter in Lake Elmo.
“I’ve always been a Democrat, but I’ve never before thought the Republican nominee is actually dangerous,” said Cheryl Bartholomew, the recently retired 3M engineer, out on foot on an errand to the downtown post office. Matt Faint, a 37-year-old landscaper who lives nearby, put it like this: “Trump is a fool. My vote isn’t as much for her as it is against him.”
At this politically divided time, one thing unites voters of all stripes: a hunger for an end to the acrimony, barrage of TV advertising and general anxiety accompanying the constant presidential news cycle. Out on Stillwater Boulevard, at Hagberg’s Country Market, 33-year-old Elizabeth Serreyn stopped to pick up a porketta-to-go to feed the family before parent-teacher conferences that night.
Has she been following the presidential race? “As much as I can tolerate,” said Serreyn, who lives close by in Maplewood. “I watched all the debates. I wanted to throw things at my television.”
Serreyn is fond of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson — “but where does that get me?” she asked. She’s likely to go for Clinton, who she sees as competent but overly scripted. She called Trump “icky, rude.”
“I’m accepting of the idea that I have to throw my vote at the one I hate least over the one I hate most,” she said.