A public school cook from Andover is backing Republican billionaire Donald Trump after voting twice for President Obama, disillusioned after years of feeling financially stuck.
Brian Billman is a Duluth area business owner who believes the president should be viewed as chief executive of a wealthy country — one with experience like Trump’s, employing thousands of people and “making things work.”
Nickolas Pilotta is rooting for Trump to break up the two-party establishment, even if he has reservations about the candidate’s bombastic style.
“Do I like Trump as a person? Probably not,” said the Minneapolis author and entertainer who usually goes by L.A. Nik. “Would I hang out with him? Probably not. Would I like to see him beat Hillary Clinton? Absolutely.”
Trump finished third in Minnesota’s GOP caucuses earlier this month, one of his worst finishes so far. But interviews with Trump supporters spanning the Twin Cities, surrounding suburbs and northern Minnesota, where his support was strongest among GOP voters, reveal a complex picture of why the once unlikely first-time candidate has racked up wins in 14 states.
His Minnesota supporters mirror his backers nationally, where he polls best among white, male, blue-collar and high school-educated voters. He also has appeal among voters whose jobs have been trampled by globalization and who have seen the implosion of the manufacturing sector in their hometowns.
His backers are looking for security in an uncertain world, but also say they are exasperated by feelings that the two parties have sold them out. And they are not being swayed so far by the growing uproar from influential Republicans who say Trump will ruin their party and the country. If anything, those denunciations make them more determined.
“Every time the [Republican] party attacks Trump, it reminds people again what they don’t like about the party,” said Terry Stone, a business owner and Republican activist in International Falls.
Fueled by this same sentiment around the country, Trump has beaten back rivals like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump got another shot of adrenaline last Tuesday with victories in Michigan, Hawaii and Mississippi, countering critics who say he cannot build a broad coalition of support.
Pivotal primaries this week in Florida, Ohio and other states could put Trump on the verge of claiming the Republican nomination. The votes will test whether he can hold onto his supporters amid a new barrage of attacks on his character and tone. Trump also faces new pressure to show he can widen his support, since many of his prior primary and caucus wins were aided by the fact that there were so many GOP candidates splitting the vote.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in January found Trump’s support strongest among men in suburban and rural areas. In the state’s GOP caucuses, he did well in northern Minnesota, particularly on the Range. He won 32 percent of the GOP vote in St. Louis County.
Stone is the Koochiching County GOP chairman, where Trump came in first with 35 percent of the vote. He said his region on the Canadian border has been hurt by strict environmental rules that have distressed the timber industry and by mass layoffs of workers in the steel industry.
Stone said some voters in his region are realizing that repeatedly voting for the party-establishment candidate wasn’t getting them anywhere.
The Iron Range’s struggling steel industry, a victim of sagging prices globally, offers a receptive audience to Trump’s critiques of trade deals that have destroyed mining and manufacturing jobs.
“Many people in this area have decided we are not going to sacrifice a chance to take our country back on the altar of ideology that we’ve been voting with for a long time and that hasn’t really yielded any results,” said Stone, 68. “There was a decision to go for strong, strong leadership.”
Trump enthusiast Zach Lindstrom said the candidate is a seasoned TV showman who spews “hot garbage” to keep himself in the media.
“The guy we’ll see get elected is going to be much different from the guy who is currently resonating with voters,” said Lindstrom, a 34 year-old auto loan specialist from Mounds View. “Some people may feel gypped by that, but in the long run, people will end up being happy with the man he is. … The man behind the scenes is who we should be evaluating.”
Lindstrom praised his ability to weather the criticism.
“What other person would be willing to stand and take this abuse day after day for almost a year straight now?” he asked. “Why would you subject yourself to that when you could go back to making billions of dollars, unless you have a desire to do something good?”
Some local Trump supporters also are receptive to his controversial statements about deporting undocumented immigrants and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country, campaign promises that have drawn furious criticism from some influential Republicans. These voters have grown uneasy as a wave of Latino and East African immigrants have arrived in Minnesota in recent years. They have also become concerned after seeing local youths joining Islamic terrorist groups abroad.
Trump has vowed to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the Mexican border to stop more from coming into the U.S., though some supporters don’t really believe he’ll force out that many people. Lindstrom said Trump’s base would be happy if he only sent home undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes.
Trump’s backers say they don’t believe that he is racist, as some critics have contended, and several said his language is more extreme than his actual views. Supporters said he is addressing their concerns about undocumented workers undercutting them on wages and Muslim terrorists passing through unsecure borders. Trump, they said, would preserve jobs and strike fear into enemies abroad.
Sandy Vincent and her husband, Billy Todd, in St. Paul said Trump makes them feel safe. “I really like the fact that he’s not afraid to say what he’s thinking,” said Vincent, 55, who believes that Obama has been too soft in foreign policy.
“I’m tired of being pushed around by other countries. I’m tired of looking weak in the world,” said Vincent, a hair stylist. “It makes me feel safe that Trump wants to fix the border. It makes me feel safe that he wants build the military.”
She’s been fond of Trump since she lived in New York, where she admired his development projects. She recalled thinking, “This guy would make a great president.”
Her husband, Todd, 52, is among the 12 percent of black voters who support Trump nationally. He believes Trump will bring back jobs.
He and other Trump fans say the candidate’s promise to temporarily ban Muslims doesn’t make him anti-Muslim. They note that the prohibition wouldn’t last forever and that more scrutiny of that group is needed to combat dangerous extremists.
“He wants to … make sure people are not coming here to hurt Americans,” said Todd. “He wants to put Americans first.”
But Stone wishes Trump would use greater care when speaking about Muslims.
“Trump’s idea isn’t nutty, but he certainly sounds like an inflammatory guy who hates Muslims, and I wouldn’t support him if I thought that was true,” Stone said.
Derek Nelson, a father of three in Spring Park, said his earnings as a drywall contractor still haven’t recovered since the financial crisis, when he burned through his savings after the construction industry crashed.
He’s found it hard to afford health insurance and dislikes that the federal health law penalizes people who don’t have it. And while Nelson appreciates that immigrants do jobs that many longtime Americans don’t want, he worries about rival contractors that undercut him on prices because they hire undocumented workers at rock bottom wages.
“I’d like to see our country for once take care of ourselves,” said Nelson, 34. “And then if we’ve got the extra money and time and energy, we help who we can.”
Jeannie Sullivan, the public school cook who voted for Obama, said she isn’t worried that Trump will let her down. “People are scared,” said Sullivan, 55. “They know this country needs a change, bad.”
Many Trump supporters say they would stick with him even if he runs as an independent.
“I’m really tired of people thinking that Trump supporters are uneducated and that they’re not smart,” said Vincent, the hair stylist. “We are probably some of the savviest, most politically motivated people there are. Sure, he isn’t perfect with his language, but I don’t even care at this point.”