At the North Carolina State Fair politics looms large in this presidential election year, and the candidate leading the pack is Republican Donald Trump. Thanks to the steady and relentless effort on the parts of the Wake County and state Republican Party volunteers, thousands of round, blue Trump/Pence “Make America Great Again” stickers adorn the shirts of fairgoers.
Trump may be trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in various polls, but Trump supporters – almost all of them white – at the fair are holding out hope. On Friday morning, John Stegall, a Garner landscape contractor stepped up to one of the two Republican booths and ordered two T-shirts for $15 each. One stated: “Proud to be a Deplorable,” the other, “Hillary for Prison 2016.”
“I’m not so much voting for him as much as I’m voting against her,” Stegall said, adding that Trump will need a large white voter turnout to have a chance. “I’m voting for pro-life and Supreme Court.”
During its 11-day run it was hard to go more than a minute or so without seeing someone – or an entire family – wearing the Trump/Pence stickers that measure about 2.5 inches across. Scores of others could be seen carrying one or more Trump/Pence red yard signs that were being peddled for $5 each at the Wake County Republican booth in the education building. The 5,000 yard signs sold out, and the crowds at the booth were often several people deep waiting to buy various Trump items. Still, I’ve yet to see a person of color wearing a Trump sticker.
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The State Fair is different. Smoking is just fine on the fair grounds, and the ambiance still has that Down East N.C. rural feel to it. Gone are the days when the fair was the Democratic stronghold of the late Agricultural Commissioner Jim Graham. Nicknamed “Sodfather,” Graham, who was elected eight times, reigned as de facto king of the fair for 37 years. Republican Steve Troxler is running for his fourth term as commissioner, and like most Council of State elections, incumbents historically have a huge advantage. Democrat Walter Smith, who lost to Troxler in 2012, is trying again. Troxler, the first Republican to hold the seat since 1908, is on his home turf at the fair, and he maintains a visible presence here, while his recorded “Welcome to the state fair” message blares on the fair public address system over and over.
Fair politics is not limited to Republicans. The Democrats have a far more quiet – and far more diverse crowd – at their booth in the education building, but for some reason they did not give out Hillary Clinton stickers, instead handing out mostly “Move NC Forward, Vote Democrat” stickers, and another featuring Clinton and President Obama that says, “Forward Together.”
The Libertarian Party of North Carolina and the Green Party also have booths at the fair, which do not draw the attention of fairgoers like the Republicans do. The Libertarians, who have a booth in a big tent, were trying to give away “Gary Johnson for President” yard signs on Friday.
Volunteer Heather Buck of New Bern, said people stop and make positive comments. “I’ve had people come through and say (about Johnson), ‘He’s the only one that makes sense.’ ”
Four women were volunteering at the Jill Stein for President Green Party booth on Friday in the commercial building. “What have red or blue ever done for you?” said volunteer Bridgette Woodring of Hillsborough. “Vote your conscience, not the lesser of two evils.”
Trump may be a billionaire New Yorker, but he has managed to capture the hearts and minds of working-class, conservative fairgoers. How that all plays out on Nov. 8 remains to be seen, but if the election were held at the North Carolina State Fair, Trump would probably win the Tar Heel vote in a landslide.
Patrick O’Neill is the co-founder Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner.