Johnston County on Tuesday threw its support behind Donald Trump, giving the Republican presidential candidate 63 percent of the vote here.
Trump relied on rural voters like those in Johnston to win the White House over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t mean voters here cast their ballots with smiles on their faces.
Inside Johnston polling places, voters and poll workers greeted each other as friends and neighbors. They cracked jokes and asked about each other’s families. But once they had cast their ballots, voters were more subdued.
Crazy, disappointing, frustrating, depressing. Those were the words Johnstonians used over and over again to describe how they felt about the 2016 campaign season and the choices before them.
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“I’m glad it’s over with,” said Dorothy B. Allen, 64, of Smithfield, who works at Heavner Furniture Market in Smithfield. “It’s kind of hilarious, but it’s also frustrating.”
Allen is a registered Republican, but this year’s presidential candidates had her undecided until she entered the voting booth. Campaign ads that painted Trump as unfit and Clinton as unethical only made the choice harder, she said.
“It was tormenting deciding who to believe,” Allen said.
She cared nothing for the attack ads that dominated the airwaves leading up to the election. “People ought to just let other people live,” Allen said. “We shouldn’t judge people. People always think they’re right about everything, but only God knows what’s right for us.”
Johnston had a number of local contested races on its Nov. 8 ballot – for school board, county commissioner, N.C. House and Senate and District Court judge. But it was the presidential race that brought voters to the polls, even if they cast their ballots grudgingly.
“It’s been crazy,” said Elnora Blue, 75, of Smithfield. “It’s outrageous some of the things they say and the bickering. ... All you ever see is negativity. It’s so disappointing. I’m just so glad it’s over.”
Joseph Grohman, 68, was an equally exhausted voter. “It’s so sad that we have to vote for the person we hate the least,” the Smithfield resident said. “Even that’s hard sometimes.”
Allen, Blue and Grohman had plenty of company in their discontent.
Patricia Brunty, 68, retired from a career in retail, put her faith in a power higher than president. “It’s a crazy year, but you just have to pray and then vote and then pray about it,” she said.
That doesn’t mean voters should take their duty lightly, said Brunty, a Smithfield resident. “God already knows who’s going to win, but it’s up to us to stand up for what we believe in,” she said.
Like many voters, Michael Freed of Clayton was conflicted. He found Trump to be a loose cannon but fretted more about Clinton’s lapses in judgment, including her questionable handling of classified emails.
“It took me a little while to come around to Trump; I agree with a lot of what he said, but not the way he says it,” Freed said. “There are maybe other ways of going about it.
“But I am 100 percent against putting a criminal in the White House. If the average person had done a fraction of what she’s done, they’d be in prison for 10 or 20 years.”
Echoing Freed’s words, Diana Kimball of Clayton called Clinton corrupt, and though she said Trump could use some polish, she connected with his words.
“Although he’s brash and maybe he’s not saying it the way I would say it, I like what he says,” Kimball said.
The language of the candidates, especially Trump, seemed to strike a chord with many voters. Some Americans have long decried a perceived age of political correctness, where the way we talk about certain things and certain people offers undue accommodation. But where some see the country going soft, others see sanctuary. Diane Poe said Trump cut through all that and told it like it is.
“He doesn’t have a filter on his mouth,” Poe said. “I think Trump made perfect sense. I think he represents us well. We need to see the jobs come back. We need to focus on public safety.”
Hollie Dinwiddie, 25, who works in pediatric health care, voted for the first time on Tuesday. Unhappy with either candidate, the Smithfield resident almost stayed home.
“It’s a mess,” Dinwiddie said. “It’s going to be really close, I think.”
The popular vote indeed proved close, with Clinton edging Trump, though the Republican easily won the Electoral College.
Not everyone casting ballots on Tuesday voted for the Democrat or Republican. All things considered, Bobbi Vandusen, 43, of Smithfield would have preferred to stay home but felt she needed to make a statement.
“I didn’t want to, but I had to do it,” she said of voting. “I needed to be able to say that I didn’t vote for either of them.”
Vandusen’s coworker at Walmart, 31-year-old Richard Capps, also thought about staying home.“It’s been nothing but a joke,” he said of the campaign season.
Capps said he was particularly disappointed with the presidential candidates.
“Is this really the best we can do?” he asked. “People hate Trump, but if he gets elected, we deserve it. With only two parties, you’re either with them or against them, and we’re never going to get anything done that way.”
Charles Dublin, 55, the head custodian at Riverwood Middle School in Clayton, was one of the few voters to exit his polling place smiling. “I try to look past the ugliness and look to the positive always,” he said. “As human beings, we’re full of words, but you have to look to the people who will help and not hurt.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett