DUBLIN, Ohio – Robert Peters and George Fidelibus walked off the 18th green at the Golf Club of Dublin, then carried pints of beer to the patio overlooking the course, which was framed by $500,000 homes.
Their conversation quickly turned to the president.
“I’m feeling better and better about him all the time,” said Peters, 63, a retired engineer, who had once been cool to Donald Trump.
Fidelibus, 75, a retired banker in a Calloway hat, had also once been skeptical of the president’s bullying and lack of self-control.
“I’m a supporter of Trump now,” he said “He may not always say things the way most presidents before him said them, but what does it matter? They didn’t get the job done.”
As an edgy, divided nation heads into a crucial election, much of the attention is focused on the anti-Trump animus of suburban women, which seems to have gained a few degrees in intensity over the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.
Much less examined are their male counterparts. While recent polls show that white women with a college degree favor Democratic House candidates by a large margin, 20 points or more, white college-educated men — who focus more singularly on economic issues, according to surveys — are a potential bulwark for the president and his party. It is especially true in suburban battleground districts that are likely to help decide the next House majority.
White men without a college degree were Trump’s most reliable supporters, but they made up only 33 percent of his total vote. College-educated white men were also essential to putting him over the top.
One reason for their continued support now: White college-educated men have benefited unequally in the Trump economy. While the president’s favorite barometer of success, the stock market, is up 26 percent since he took office, individual stock ownership is concentrated among people in the upper income brackets, who are far more likely to be white. The Republican tax cut also delivered higher benefits to whites than to blacks or Latinos, according to a recent study.
These men, largely Trump voters whose support for him has solidified since his election, are business owners and sales executives, veterinarians and lawyers — men who largely wouldn’t be caught dead at a Trump rally chanting “Lock her up!”
They may cringe at a president who humiliates Cabinet secretaries and foreign allies, and who utters a stream of easily disproved falsehoods.
But many have quietly struck a bargain with Trump: They will overlook his trampling of presidential norms because he is delivering just what they want on the economy, deregulation, immigration and foreign affairs.
“He’s tough, he’s a bully, but boy things are getting done,” said JD Kaplan, who runs a graphics business from his home on a neatly landscaped block in Dublin, an affluent suburb of Columbus. Kaplan, 63, who is a Republican activist, moved years ago from northeast Ohio’s struggling Rust Belt, where a younger brother still runs Kaplan Furniture, a store their grandfather founded.
“Whether it was Obama who started it or not, the economy’s better,” he said. “I see my brother’s businesses are doing better, my graphics business is doing better, my wife’s got a better job.”
Dublin is in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, where Troy Balderson, a Republican, squeaked out a 1-point victory in a special election in August.
Balderson is on the ballot again on Nov. 6 against the same Democratic opponent, Danny O’Connor. The race has dropped out of the national spotlight it held during the summer, but the same dynamics are at work: whether O’Connor, an official in Franklin County, which includes most of Dublin, can attract enough votes in the suburbs to offset rural conservatives who favor Balderson.
Here, as elsewhere around the country, the vote has become largely a referendum on the president.
Interviews in August and on a recent return visit showed that while Trump is losing droves of white women with college degrees, many of their male counterparts now strongly support him.
They are country-club Republicans who long voted for business-friendly politicians like Gov. John Kasich, who represented the 12th District in the House and is the national face of never-Trump Republicans.
One Dublin man who is a former Ohio assistant attorney general, and who now owns a manufacturing business, said he wrote in Kasich’s name in 2016, rather than cast a ballot for Trump. “But now I’m a big supporter,” he said of the president.
He asked to be identified only by his first name, Sam, because he fears a backlash for his business if he publicly supports the president.
“I feel he’s done a marvelous job,” he said.
He added: “I can’t stand his personality and behavior.”
Other men who back Trump in Dublin were also unwilling to let their full names be used. They did not want to inflame clients, colleagues or family members.
“Behind closed doors there’s very, very solid support,” for Trump, said Charles McClenaghan, a lawyer, who is president of the Dublin Republican Club.
“I think that’s exactly why the polls got it wrong in 2016,” he continued. “People felt intimidated, they felt bullied. They’re just not going to talk politics. But when they get in the voting booth, they’re going to look at the wonderful success he’s had.”
Like other Republican-held battleground seats that analysts say will help determine the next House majority, the 12th District is whiter, richer and better educated than the nation as a whole.
Its voters differ fundamentally from Trump’s winning coalition in 2016, which was anchored by white voters without a college degree, primarily in the Midwest.
A Washington Post poll this week of 69 battleground House seats, including Ohio’s 12th, found that white college-educated women preferred Democratic candidates by an enormous 27-point margin, 62 percent to 35 percent.
The survey echoed an earlier one by Monmouth University of eight battleground House districts, which found white college women favored Democrats by a 21-point margin.
White college men, on the other hand, are up for grabs. They split exactly 49 to 49 percent in their party preference in the Washington Post poll. The Monmouth survey showed them favoring Republicans by 6 points.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Poll, said there were major differences in the issues that animate white college-educated men and women.
“The normal set of political concerns for men are which party is going to give me lower taxes and less regulation,” Murray said. “Whereas white college-educated women are saying, ‘I will do fine economically, but I am really worried about the tone of the Trump presidency, I’m worried about the direction this country is going.’ ”
Dublin, a growing city of 47,000, is the quintessence of the suburban good life: 75 percent of adults graduated from college; the median household income is $125,500.
Its most famous entrepreneur, Jack Nicklaus, is immortalized in bronze alongside a boulevard entering Muirfield Village, a luxury golf and home development he created in the 1970s.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a Muirfield resident, Rick Vanover, took in the Ohio State football game at the Bogey Bar and Grill. “How do I feel about Trump? I’ll tell you,” he said. He punched up an app and held his phone to display the digits 26,447, the Dow’s closing the day before: once again near record territory. After the market’s 4 percent slide this week, he said his support had not lessened.
“I’m a conservative with common sense,” said Vanover, a sales executive for a Fortune 100 company.
The next day at the Golf Club of Dublin, two other players finished their games, a veterinarian and a medical physicist, and sauntered into the Tudor-style clubhouse, where they ordered chicken wings and beers.
The golfing buddies were on opposite sides of the nation’s roiling political gulf, but had managed to remain friends. “Can I try one of these?” the veterinarian said, reaching for the physicist’s plate of Buffalo wings.
Paul Lundahl, the physicist, who works in cancer treatment, said he had long been apolitical, “reluctantly” voting in 2016 for Hillary Clinton while not caring much about the outcome.
“I’ve never really considered myself a Republican or Democrat or whatever,” he said.
But he has grown to detest Trump.
“I just cannot believe what comes out of that guy’s mouth every time he speaks,” Lundahl said. “I feel like I’m on the playground as a second-grader.”
The veterinarian, who would only be identified by his first name, Steve, was a fan of Trump’s.
He praised the Republican tax cut because it put more money in his clients’ pockets, which has meant more of them come to his clinic for heartworm and flea treatments for their pets.
“That helps me,” the veterinarian said. “So I don’t really care what the president says. He’s a crude guy. It’s embarrassing. But what he’s done is what he said he was going to do.”
He credited Trump for getting Kavanaugh confirmed and for meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. “How many people over the past 50 years between Obama and Clinton and Bush failed?” the veterinarian said. “Who made the deals? Trump did.”
Lundahl has become so numb to the president’s trampling of political norms, he said, that he recently decided not to talk anymore about Trump. “It’s so exhausting,” he said.
There was a commotion on the TV above the bar. “Did the Steelers tie the game?” the veterinarian said. “How’d they do that?”