Who’s really voting for Trump: Portraits beyond the polls

Who are Donald Trump’s supporters? That’s the question every pollster, pundit and politico has been asking ever since the Manhattan mogul launched his candidacy, ascended to the top of the polls and kicked off the GOP primary battle as we know it.

For months, many rank-and-file Republicans admitted that they had no idea who was backing Trump.

“I’ve never met a single one of them,” a New Hampshire resident named Doug Cleveland told the New York Times in January. “Where are all these Trump supporters? Everyone we know is supporting somebody else.”

But now it’s more than halfway through March. Thirty-one states, three territories and the District of Columbia have voted. Entrance and exit polls have been conducted in 20 of those states. More than 30,000 actual voters have been surveyed. If you want to know which Americans Trump is performing best with — not in theory, but at the ballot box — you simply have to sift through the results.

At the same time, researchers have been busy probing the electorate’s attitudes, intentions and choices. Two of the most interesting polling projects — the 2016 RAND Presidential Election Panel and the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics panel at the University of Pennsylvania — have returned again and again to the same respondents, measuring how their perspectives and preferences have changed over time.

There is, in other words, no shortage of data on Trump supporters. Yet even the best polling has its limits. It can tell you a lot about big groups of people, but it doesn’t tell you all that much about the people themselves. And the way the polls are publicized is even more reductive, with headlines that treat a candidate’s strongest demographic as if it were his or her only demographic.

So Yahoo Politics is trying something different. We’ve decided to take Trump’s advice and “turn the cameras around”: To focus on Trump’s supporters in much the same way the media has focused on Trump himself. To look at them as people rather than statistics.

Plenty of Trump fans have been quoted in the press, chiming in here or there after a rally. But our goal is to dig deeper. After talking to scores of Trump voters in more than a dozen states, we identified six who seemed to embody the spectrum of Trump’s support and whose stories supplied the sort of nuance that numbers alone can’t convey: Ron Vance, 59, an insurance agent from Pahrump, Nev.; Eileen Schmidt, 46, a mother of two from Tiffin, Iowa; Justin Neal, 39, a vehicle maintenance foreman from Bealeton, Va.; Rick Cruz, 62, a semiretired contractor from Royal Oak, Mich.; Nell Frisbie, 79, a real estate agent from Kiln, Miss.; and A.J. Delgado, 36, a public-interest lawyer from Miami. Then we circled back, spending hours with each of them, asking about their lives, their hopes, their fears and, of course, their fondness for Trump.

All six are profiled below.

Polls and studies have taught us a lot about the Trump phenomenon. Since 2007, the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics has been surveying the same panel of voters, many of whom have sided with Trump in the current GOP contest; the institute’s most recent survey wrapped up in early February. The results, as ISCP political science professor Daniel J. Hopkins recently put it, provide “an unparalleled look at Trump supporters’ attitudes long before they even knew Trump would run, whether in 2007, 2008 or 2012.”

So what did Hopkins & Co. discover? Prior to Trump, the people who would go on to back him in 2016 rated themselves much less conservative than the people who would go on to back Ted Cruz. The distinction was most pronounced on social issues: Future Trump supporters were almost as pro-choice as future Hillary Clinton supporters; they were also a little less opposed to same-sex marriage than future Cruz supporters. Yet they were more populist on economic issues as well: slightly more supportive of government spending in general, a bit less likely to favor repealing Obamacare, and far more hostile toward NAFTA. In 2012, they were markedly less likely to have favored a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

On foreign policy, Trump’s future supporters tended to call themselves hawks. But in 2007, compared to those who would later support Cruz, they were far more likely to oppose keeping troops in Iraq — a position that neatly aligns with Trump’s. They also scored higher on measures of anti-Hispanic and anti-black prejudice than voters who would go on to back either Cruz or Marco Rubio — a theme that has continued to resurface in coverage of the 2016 contest.

The RAND poll fleshed out these observations. Contrary to popular belief, RAND found that a substantial proportion of the GOP primary electorate is relatively liberal on pocketbook issues: 51 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” favored increasing taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year, for instance, while 38 percent had a favorable or very favorable opinion of labor unions. Trump performed especially well with these voters, outpacing Cruz by 45 percent among Republicans who “strongly favor” raising taxes on the rich and 37 percent among Republicans who feel “very favorably” toward labor unions.

RAND also found that Trump benefited from biases against immigrants, African-Americans and women, clobbering Cruz (by 44 percent) among Republicans who “strongly agree” that “immigrants threaten American customs and values” and trouncing the Texan (by 36 percent) among Republicans who “strongly agree” that “women who complain about harassment cause problems.” Yet the strongest indicator of support for Trump — stronger than gender, age, race/ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, household income, attitudes toward Muslims, attitudes toward illegal immigrants or attitudes toward Hispanics — was a feeling of voicelessness; according to RAND, Republicans were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer the Manhattan mogul if they “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that “people like me don't have any say about what the government does.”

“Trump supporters form a powerful populist coalition uniting concerns about immigrants and other groups with support for economically progressive policies,” the RAND study concluded.

Most of the RAND and ISCP observations were borne out once Republicans started voting in February. In state after state — whether Trump finished first or not — entrance and exit polls have showed that he consistently garners a higher percentage of the vote among certain segments of the electorate than he does statewide. Trump tends to overperform among men, for example — usually by five or more percentage points. The same goes for voters who cite immigration as their top concern; in Ohio, he fared 32 percentage points better among these voters than he did among Ohioans overall.

The list of indicators for supporting Trump runs long: voters over 45; voters who earn less than $50,000 a year; voters (especially white voters) who didn’t graduate from college; voters from rural areas; voters who are “angry” at the government; voters who are “very worried” about the economy; voters who think trade “takes away” U.S. jobs; voters who fear that they are “falling behind”; voters who think that illegal immigrants ought to be deported; voters who believe that Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the country; voters who are convinced that the GOP nominee should come from “outside the establishment”; voters who, above all else, want a president who “tells it like it is” or can “bring about needed change”; voters who settled on their candidate of choice more than a month ago — dig through the entrance and exit polls and you’ll find that these are the primary voters with whom Trump always overperforms.

And so a narrative has taken shape in the media: Trump supporters are white, male, undereducated, lower-income, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and angry — even racist. But the truth is more complicated. To be sure, some Trump fans — especially the ones sucker-punching black protesters at rallies — may resemble this stereotype. Yet relatively few Trump voters belong to every single one of the categories listed above; most of them answered yes to some (or even just one) of these questions and no to the rest.

What’s more, Trump’s strongest supporters aren’t his only supporters; he is winning among other demographic groups as well. Trump beat his rivals among women in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont, Mississippi, Florida and Illinois. In Florida, he won immigration-centric voters, as usual — but he also won voters who cited the economy, government spending and terrorism as their top concerns. In Illinois, Trump won college graduates and voters under 45; in North Carolina, he won voters making more than $100,000 a year. These groups may not fit the Trump stereotype, but they are part of his coalition, nonetheless.

None of the Trump supporters profiled here completely fit the stereotype, either. Actual human beings rarely do. Ron Vance says he isn’t “angry — just disappointed”; he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and admits that she’s still his No. 2 choice for president. Justin Neal acknowledges that Trump has a “narcissistic-type personality” but wonders if that’s what it takes to “succeed” these days. Eileen Schmidt is a registered nurse who’s completing a graduate degree in health administration. Rick Cruz is a Filipino-American who studied at Trump University and admires the candidate’s business acumen. A.J. Delgado is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and a Harvard-educated lawyer. Nell Frisbie is a former RNC delegate who has been campaigning on behalf of establishment Republicans her entire adult life. And none of them are particularly enthusiastic about Trump’s most outrageous remarks, insisting, when asked, that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying — he’s merely “playing the game.”

Ultimately, if Trump ends up winning the game — if he becomes the next Republican nominee and, beyond that, the next commander-in-chief — he will have voters like Vance, Neal, Schmidt, Cruz, Frisbie and Delgado to thank. There simply aren’t enough stereotypical Trump fans out there to elect a president.

– Andrew Romano

The security mom 

When I first met her, Eileen Schmidt was standing near the back of a packed gymnasium at the University of Iowa in Iowa City listening to Donald Trump speak, but it was her son that I had noticed first.

A sturdy, baby-faced kid with hands that seemed to be a little too big for his body, Dylan, 11, had climbed on a barricade separating reporters from the crowd, trying to get a better look at the Republican presidential hopeful at what turned out to be a raucous rally, a few days before the Iowa caucuses. I had never seen a child more excited at a political event. He laughed at Trump’s one-liners and cheered wildly as protesters were ejected, including one who had thrown a tomato in the candidate’s direction. “Get ’em out of here,” he chanted along with Trump.

But it was what Dylan was wearing that caught my eye. He was in an adult-sized Trump campaign shirt, emblazoned with the candidate’s logo “Make America Great Again.” On the left side of his chest was pinned a political button that has been a bestseller at Trump rallies across the country. “Bomb the S--- Out of ISIS,” it read, memorializing a Trump quote from last November on how he would protect the country from terrorists.

I had seen that button on plenty of adults, but never a kid — much less one in Iowa, where parents tended to frown on vulgarity. Dylan had picked out the button himself as he waited in line for the Trump rally that night with his mom and little brother, Drake, 10. “It was kind of random,” Eileen later told me. “But I was OK with it. I agree with what the button says.”

Security is a big issue for Schmidt, 46, a registered nurse who is completing a graduate degree in health administration. She worries about the threat of ISIS and attacks like December’s massacre in San Bernardino and the bombings Tuesday in Brussels. “I have no idea why Barack Obama has not taken care of ISIS,” she said. “I feel that the ISIS situation has caused a lot of problems, and it just continues. I feel Donald Trump … needs to go in and bomb the hell out of it and just be done with it.”

She also supports Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as a way of curbing illegal immigration, which she says is taking away jobs and causing an uptick in crime in her town. The system, as it is, makes her feel unsafe because there are no controls on who is coming in, she says.

“This nation is like a home,” she said. “In my home, I have locks on my doors. I have blinds on my windows. I let people into my home who I want to be let in my home. The illegal immigrants need to stop. … We need to stop letting these people in who are not welcomed, who are intruders, who are violating us, who (are) violating our children.”

In many other ways, Schmidt is the epitome of an Iowa voter. She’s a Republican, but has often crossed party lines to support other candidates when she feels they would be good leaders. She voted for Bill Clinton twice and still thinks he did a good job as president, “except for that last part,” referring to his scandalous dalliance with a White House intern. She later supported George W. Bush and Mitt Romney — “passionately,” she said of the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP nominee, who is now leading the effort to deny the nomination to Trump.

Schmidt, who grew up in Wisconsin before moving to Iowa 27 years ago, was at first skeptical about Trump’s candidacy. She had been vaguely aware of him as a businessman and as a tabloid fixture, and, later, as host of “The Apprentice.” When Trump announced he was running for president last summer and began to gain momentum in the polls, she couldn’t believe it. A man famous for saying “You’re fired” as president? “I don’t know about this guy,” Schmidt recalled telling her husband, Jim. “I just didn’t really like the negativity.”

But Schmidt, who had at first leaned toward supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, began researching Trump as she and her husband tried to figure out who would be the best candidate in the race. “The more I read about him, the more fascinated I became,” she recalled. She admired his work ethic and his ability to pick himself up and move on after mistakes. “He has built an incredible life and career,” she said. “He’s worked hard for everything he has.”

Hearing Schmidt talk about Trump brings to mind how people talked about Barack Obama eight years ago. In Trump, she sees a candidate who can bring hope and change in an era of economic uncertainty. She and her husband live in Tiffin, Iowa, just west of Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is the biggest employer. The university, where Schmidt works and also goes to school, has kept the region relatively secure economically, but she said people are still struggling.

Her husband, who runs his own excavating business, has seen competitors go out of business as construction jobs have dried up. Eileen, who sits on the local school board, says that more students than ever are signed up for the free-lunch program because their parents have lost their jobs or are barely able to pay their bills. “People can’t afford to live,” she said.

What truly makes her angry is Washington — the gridlock and the growing debt. “The waste is unbelievable,” she said of the federal government. And as a mother, she’s scared for the financial future of the nation. “When you are sitting on a debt load of $19 trillion, there is a problem. That’s going to fall on my kids and grandkids, and what are they going to do? It makes me sick. I’ve had to work for everything I have … but what are they doing in Washington? The leadership is not there. The fulfillment is not there. Where is our country going? It’s scary to me.”

Schmidt acknowledges Trump’s political inexperience — including on foreign affairs —but is willing to take a gamble in order to change the status quo because “he is a leader.” She thinks his business abilities will make him more willing to compromise and find solutions to problems in ways that no other candidate in the race could.

She also likes Trump’s bluntness, how he tells it how it is and seems to understand the everyday struggles of people like her. Sometimes he says things “inappropriately,” Schmidt acknowledged, but “you’re not going to hurt our country by being open.”

“Tell me how it is,” she said. “Don’t tell me what I want to hear.”

Schmidt made the decision to back Trump late last year, though she hadn’t told many people. At the hospital that day, where she works the 5 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift, she told her colleagues she was planning to attend the Trump rally on campus. Iowa City is a Democratic stronghold in the state, but Schmidt was surprised to find that many of her colleagues, no matter their party affiliation, were curious about and even supportive of Trump.

“I think there a lot of secret Trump fans,” Schmidt said.

– Holly Bailey

The independent

A lot of voters like to say they’re independents — true free agents, neither Democrat nor Republican. Almost none of them actually are.

And then there’s Ron Vance.

One recent Sunday morning, Vance drove to a parking lot in Pahrump, Nev., to see Ted Cruz speak. An insurance agent by trade, with an even tan, a husky build, and an upbeat, no-nonsense manner, Vance, 59, was wearing a black-and-orange rugby shirt emblazoned with the seal of Cruz’s alma mater, Princeton, when I met him — even though Vance himself attended Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University. First, we bonded over presidential trivia. Then we got to talking about his own political journey.

“Jimmy Carter was my first vote,” Vance told me in his Pittsburgh bark. “Then I voted for Carter again because I thought Reagan was going to get us into World War III. When that never happened, I thought, ‘Hey, this guy isn’t a crackpot like everyone said he was.’ So the next time I voted for Reagan.”

Vance went on to explain that he has bounced back and forth between the parties ever since, from George H.W. Bush (“first-class”) to Clinton (“wasn’t as bad as I thought he would be”) to Al Gore and John Kerry (“George W. Bush wasn’t bright enough”) to McCain and Romney (because Obama was “too young and inexperienced”). He even voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

I was flabbergasted. In more than a decade of interviewing voters, I had never encountered anyone quite like Vance. And he was about to surprise me again.

“So who are you voting for in 2016?” I asked.

“Donald Trump,” he said.

When the rest of the country thinks of Trump supporters, it tends to think of certain things: “angry,” “non-college-educated,” maybe even “xenophobic.” That’s what the pundits, the pollsters and the political scientists have taught people to think, anyway.

Ron Vance isn’t really any of those things. He has a college degree. He studied history in grad school. He’s a white-collar worker. He’s pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage, and pro-pot legalization. And he isn’t particularly pissed off.

But the more I talked to Vance, the more I started to regard him as emblematic of the larger Trump phenomenon. There was something about his support of the Manhattan mogul that went deeper than demographics.

Vance grew up in Deer Lakes, Pa., a working-class community near Pittsburgh. After raising the kids, his mother went to work cleaning houses and waiting tables; his father, like most other men in the area, slaved away in a steel mill. He wasn’t happy about it. ”My dad was really, really smart, but there weren’t any other jobs,” Vance explained. “So he drummed into my brother and I, ‘You will not work in a steel mill. You will go to college.’ He wouldn’t even let me go in there. I had to sit in the car. He wanted a better life for his kids.”

After college, Vance entered the insurance business. Throughout the 1980s, his career was on the upswing; a series of promotions took him from Tucson to Denver to Houston to Los Angeles to San Francisco. He was “making really nice money — suit, tie, briefcase.” Then, suddenly, Penn Mutual shuttered its Bay Area office, and Vance was out of work. He landed another position in Atlanta, but that too ended with Vance losing his job. “So after 20 years, I just said, ‘Screw it,’” Vance told me.

He moved to Las Vegas — his parents had retired to nearby Pahrump — and took a job fielding customer complaints at the Rio casino. On a flight to Aruba, Vance met a woman from New Jersey named Kathy; they stayed in touch for seven years by email and phone, and finally, in 2008, he proposed and moved to the East Coast. A few months later, however, the economy imploded, and both Vances got laid off. Kathy was just shy of 30 years at Prudential.

“She was miserable,” Vance told me. “Like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I said, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s happened to me twice already. How do you think I feel?’”

With nothing left for them in New Jersey, the Vances decided to purchase an Allstate franchise in far-flung Pahrump, where they could live in the house Ron had inherited from his parents. So far, however, business has been slow, and Vance has recently taken to driving a taxi on the side. His day starts at 3 a.m.

“I’m tired,” Vance told me. “Mentally and physically.”

I asked Vance about Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again!” Did it resonate with him? Has America gotten worse?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Economically we’ve fallen apart the last 20 years. I mean, here I am. I’m a calculus class away from a BS in business. I have BA in history. Minor in speech communications. I have a CEBS degree. And I’m driving a taxi for minimum wage.”

For a certain kind of voter, politics has never really been about policy. Character has always mattered more. Maybe it’s Vance’s steel-town upbringing, or the hardship of job loss after job loss. Either way, he seems to care less about finding a candidate who agrees with him on every issue than he does about finding a candidate who’s “earned it” — who has the “grit” to upend the status quo.

For Vance, Trump is that candidate.

“Boy, does he say some stupid stuff,” Vance admitted. “But Trump’s not as nutty as everybody thinks he is. He’s just playing the game. The guy has good common horse sense. Those buildings didn’t go up in New York City by themselves. I can’t even imagine what Trump had to deal with — how many documents, negotiations, politicians, protesters, contracts.”

Whatever their demographic profile, many Trump fans seem to have this, at least, in common with Vance. They’re people who feel that America isn’t treating them as well as it used to, and they have a hunch that it will take the right person — more, perhaps, than the right blend of policy proposals — to fix it.

“I mean, is Mexico gonna pay for the wall? No. That’s crazy,” Vance told me. “But at least Trump will try. And with a guy like that, who knows? As someone once said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ It’s time for a change.”

– Andrew Romano

The Latina lawyer

AJ Delgado is used to shocking people with her political opinions.

As a student at Harvard Law school during the early 2000’s, Delgado said her conservative views regularly led to “heated” exchanges with her largely liberal classmates and professors. Sometimes, the Ivy Leaguers were just “perplexed” that one of their own could be a Republican. Delgado said she encounters similarly incredulous reactions now when people find out she supports Donald Trump.

“People will genuinely ask you this as though it’s not an insult, ‘They’ll be like, but AJ, you’re smart. … So, how do you like Trump?’”

Delgado knows there’s a “stereotype” for Trump supporters — white, male, uneducated. And, as a Cuban-American, with platinum blonde hair, a wardrobe of glamorous frocks, and her Harvard degree, she’s its polar opposite.

And Delgado clearly relishes challenging people who have negative views of Trump and his supporters. In person, in columns for a slew of media outlets, regular appearances on Fox News, and her Twitter page, Delgado regularly unleashes detailed defenses of the man she called “Donald the Dream” during a conversation with Yahoo News last Friday. Contrary to the stereotype, she sees Trump as the “thinking man’s candidate.”

“If you’re an intelligent person, you would be supporting Trump because it would mean you’ve actually researched the difference between fair trade and free trade. It would mean you actually understand the nuances of foreign policy and why you want somebody who has some of an interventionist bent if America’s threatened ... but is also not reflexively interventionist,” Delgado explained.

Delgado, 36, is used to defying expectations. She grew up the child of two Cuban immigrants in Miami’s “Little Havana” neighborhood. Her father’s side of the family came to the U.S. before the revolution while her mother’s relatives fled the regime of Fidel Castro. Delgado describes the heart of the city’s Cuban community as a “very blue collar” place where the idea of going away for college was “bizarre” and Harvard was something “seen in movies.” Her father, a bus driver, was shocked when she showed him her law school acceptance.

“I hand him the letter and he just looks at me like upset and goes, ‘How are you going to pay for this?’” Delgado recounted.

Delgado managed to put herself through law school thanks to what she described as “a shitload of student loans, excuse my language.”

After school, she spent some time working as a litigator for a corporate law firm before returning to Little Havana where she works for non-profits focused on the Latino community and lives in a house with a pack of rescue dogs.

While most American Hispanics vote Democratic, Cubans have long leaned Republican. Still, Delgado’s affinity for Trump is unusual. Data shows Cuban Americans have increasingly turned towards the Democratic Party in recent years . The majority of Cubans who remained Republicans haven’t backed Trump. In the Florida primary on March 15, exit polls showed 62 percent of Cubans voted for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), to 18 percent for Trump.

Delgado is a former Rubio supporter, but she was turned off after he joined the bipartisan “Gang of 8” that pushed for immigration reform in the Senate in 2013. And Delgado maintains it’s her experience living in Miami’s working class Cuban community that makes her appreciate Trump’s hardline stance.

Trump’s vow to build a wall on America’s southern border and his disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants have drawn the ire of other Latinos. But Delgado said she was immediately excited when Trump announced his presidential campaign with a speech where he heavily focused on immigration. In those remarks, Trump called some Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists.”

“Putting aside the controversial aspects of his statements, the fact is, bottom line ... in decades we have not had a Republican who was actually serious … about illegal immigration, about curbing it, controlling it,” said Delgado. “His main theme was immigration. I thought it was a dream.”

Delgado is offended by the assumption that expanding immigration is the main concern of America’s Latinos. She says the community has “all the same concerns, and needs, and wants, and worries as Anglo Americans.” Moreover, since many Latinos share her “blue collar” roots, she believes they are especially concerned about losing jobs to illegal immigrants.

According to Delgado, many people she knows in Little Havana feel they’ve lost work to illegal immigrants willing to take lower wages.

“There’s a myth that … they do work that Americans won’t do. ... No, they do work for a price that Americans won’t do it at,” Delgado said. “They’re willing to do work at third world rates, so you’re obviously going to displace an entire demographic.”

Delgado says she sees the “reality” of immigration every day in her neighborhood and “it’s not the rosy, romantic ideal.”

“All the apartment rates are through the roof because this city is crowded,” said Delgado. “The bus is too crowded because there’s just too many damn people here, many of whom are illegal.”

Delgado is amazed Trump, a “billionaire from Manhattan,” understands these concerns. Trump started his campaign on a note that resonated with Delgado and he hasn’t disappointed her since.

“I thought, you know, in the next few months he’s going to say something that I’m going to disagree with. He has yet to do that,” Delgado said of Trump. “There’s no policy position maybe, except for the Muslim ban, which I thought was a bit extreme.”

But Delgado went on to dismiss Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration as more of “an off the cuff remark” than a policy position. And she’s eager to elect a leader who speaks frankly.

“I think we need to rethink what we consider presidential. And presidential to me nowadays is not a stuffy, typical politician that runs everything that he says by 20 members of his staff,” Delgado explained. “It’s somebody who speaks off the cuff, who speaks from the heart, and speaks directly to us, and almost sounds like how our neighbors sound.”

Delgado once again expressed admiration Trump is able to connect with average Americans in spite of his wealth.

“He sounds like a mechanic sometimes. I absolutely love that, that he has that ability to communicate with Americans on their level,” said Delgado.

Overall, Delgado sees Trump as a “commonsense conservative.” Yet, in supporting Trump, she has found herself she has found opposition from both liberals and Republican allies.

In the past, Delgado penned columns for the National Review, but the conservative magazine rejected one supporting Trump, before it published an entire issue disparaging him in February.

“That’s not conservatism and it’s just not good journalism or good opinion,” Delgado said of the magazine. “So, no I’m never going to contribute there again. I have no interest unless they apologize to Trump and his supporters.”

– Hunter Walker

The working man

Everywhere he looks, Justin Neal sees other Americans refusing to play by the same rules he does.

Friends he knows in his community stay unmarried tokeep receiving government-funded health care benefits for their children. One friend of Neal’s has so abused his body with drugs and alcohol that he now is unable to work and is on disability, collecting benefits that he spends on his addictions.

At Marine Corps Base Quantico, where the 39-year-old Neal is a foreman in the vehicle maintenance shop, the parts supplier that Neal’s shop buys from has a guaranteed contract that allows him to mark up his goods, and pays no overhead because the government provides a facility.

“They’re not even buying toilet paper,” Neal said.

Neal and his wife, Shelley, have been married since they were both 19, and live with their two teenage daughters in Bealeton, Va., about 90 minutes outside Washington, D.C.

“I feel that I am a responsible, productive member of society that works hard, I have good values, and in my heart I try to do right by myself, by my family, and by the people I deal with every day,” Neal said.

Neal is a Trump voter because he thinks Trump will make the government more efficient, and stop money from being given to people who he believes don’t need it, taking resources away from those who do.

“His biggest quality is his biggest flaw. I know that he has a very, maybe, narcissistic-type personality,” Neal said. “In the business world, it seems like the people with those qualities succeed.”

The Neals first started to question the way government assistance is distributed 15 years ago, when Shelley lost her job as a financial adviser in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.We went as long as we could without her working, and we had no choice but to have her go down and file for unemployment,” Neal said. “It was a blow to her pride.”

“We were not proud that we had to do that,” he said.

But week after week, as Shelley went to file paperwork at the unemployment office, she encountered many people who did not have any problem with taking unemployment benefits, and told Shelley they would make less money if they went back to work than they were getting from the government.

“There were a lot of people saying, I’m filling out job applications that I have no chance in hell in getting.”

Shelley eventually found a job with the local public school district. “We scaled back, … adjusted, and she took a major pay cut and worked her way back,” Neal said.

Now he drives through a subsidized housing neighborhood near his house, and sees BMWs parked on the street. “To see somebody that’s living in fixed-income housing but yet can buy 25-inch rims and drive nicer cars than me — by all means, I’m not jealous of it, what other people have doesn’t define me — but it’s just another one of those things that’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Neal is not wrong that government assistance — from food stamps to disability insurance — has increased over the past decade. For example, there were 45 million Americans receiving food stamps in 2015, a significant increase from 28 million in 2008. Estimates of how many Americans receive some form of means-tested federal program vary, from 52 million on the low end to 109 million on the high end.

Neal said there’s nothing Donald Trump has said in particular about cracking down on those who abuse the government benefits system that has attracted his support. Rather, it’s his impression that Trump’s toughness and business acumen would lead the GOP frontrunner to make improvements.

“I don’t think that kind of work ethic would fly in a private business,” Neal said. “I think he would implement a lot of those standards into the government workforce if he were to become elected.”

Neal is also drawn to Trump because he believes the businessman can translate his wealth-building skills into a rejuvenation of the economy.

“The guy is a genius when it comes to building companies. He’s like a mad scientist,” Neal said. “I really do think he knows how to change things to make our economy a lot stronger than what it is.”

“And I think once our economy gets stronger, a lot of things will get better,” he said. “We all know how it is when money gets tight. Everybody gets bitter.”

Neal was raised in Haymarket, in the northern Virginia suburbs just outside D.C., the son of two federal workers. His father was a Vietnam veteran who went to work for the U.S. Post Office and his mother was a CIA employee.

He knew by the time he was in high school that he wanted to work with his hands. “Just about all the men on my father’s side of the family were mechanics,” he said. He graduated high school, took a few community college courses and then decided to go to trade school. “You’ve probably seen me reading a car magazine more than a book,” he said.

He was sometimes bitter to see childhood friends “getting it a little easier,” but now sees his austere upbringing as a gift. “Everything we’ve accomplished and received is so much more fulfilling because it wasn’t given to us, and we worked really hard for it,” said Neal. “It really, really just gives us a massive amount of pride.”

“Now we’re doing great again and it made it that much better for us, that we rose up and overcame,” he said.

“I think that the past eight years, we’ve been told that things are so bad that the only way it’s going to get fixed is if we rely on government to fix them for us. And I think people have just sat back and said, ‘They promised to fix it for us, and if they’re going to fix it, why do I need to fix it?’” Neal said.

And Neal also believes there is a “double standard” for those in the ruling class.

He’s bothered by“people in Congress who get free health care anytime they need it and then turn around and make decisions about our health care and out-of-pocket expenses,” Neal wrote in an email. “It is contempt towards Congress or elected officials who are ‘required’ by their title to balance a budget and make decisions, but when they don’t, they take a vacation and think about it before coming back to the table. If the average American were to take that stance at work, they would be fired for incompetence or dereliction of duty.”

– Jon Ward

The grandma

When Donald Trump rails against the Republican establishment, Nell Frisbie knows exactly who he is talking about. Some of them are her friends.

The 79-year-old from Kiln, Miss., has been about as close as you can get to the party establishment her entire life. A former chair of the Mississippi Federation of Republican Women and a repeat delegate to the Republican National Convention, the self-described “moderate conservative” has spent decades helping to recruit and elect Republicans firmly entrenched in the party, including former Sen. Trent Lott and ex-Gov. Haley Barbour.

In 2014, Frisbie worked on behalf of longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who was in an ugly primary with a challenger backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Frisbie threw on her old “Cochran for Senate” T-shirt from his first campaign in 1978 and went door to door arguing that Mississippi needed the seniority and experience that Cochran brought to the office.

So perhaps no one was more surprised than Frisbie when she found herself drawn to Trump, a political novice whose insurgent candidacy threatens to blow up the Republican Party. When she told her friends she was supporting the brash New York real estate mogul, many of them had the same reaction. “They said to me, ‘Are you crazy?’” she recalls. “‘Have you gone and lost your mind?’”

I first met Frisbie, a petite grandma with a crown of white hair and a sweet Southern drawl, in early March at a Trump rally in New Orleans. She had driven more than an hour from her home along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to attend what would be her third Trump event. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” she said, clutching my wrist and leaning closer so that she could be heard over the deafening pre-rally soundtrack of Elton John and the Rolling Stones — songs selected by the candidate himself. “Look at this place. Look at the people here.”

Around us was a mix of young and old. There were parents with kids, college students, veterans, blue-collar types and people in suits. There were even a few Hispanics — a rare sight at Trump’s mostly all-white rallies. A half-hour later, Trump’s speech would be interrupted by near-violent clashes between supporters and protesters, but for now, Frisbie saw a calm “melting pot.” “He’s speaking to America, all kinds of people,” she said, motioning around us. “He’s giving people hope that the country can be turned around — even an old white head like me. No other candidate is doing this.”

Frisbie has never backed a candidate like Trump before, but she thinks the country and even members of her party are on the wrong track. For her, the election is about future generations, her grandkids and their kids. She worries about the growing national debt and paralyzing gridlock in Washington, and though she acknowledges Trump’s lack of political experience, she sees him as a necessary agent of change who can shake things up. “The country is in trouble,” she said. “I’m an old woman, and it matters less for me, but I’m going to go down fighting. To me, Trump is a gamble, but he’s worth the gamble.”

Setbacks in her own life make Trump’s promise to “make America great again” resonate strongly with her. She and her husband, Bill, a retired attorney, lost their home in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They didn’t have flood insurance, so they relied on federal grants and drained their savings. But that was only the beginning of the storm. Frisbie’s real estate business took a hit because there were no homes to sell. For more than two years, they lived on credit cards and watched as their retirement nest egg dwindled in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

While most of her friends are retired, Frisbie is still selling real estate, trying to pay down her credit card debt. But times are still tough. In the aftermath of Katrina, the region continues to struggle with high unemployment and has been ravaged by a drug epidemic of meth and heroin, which has also hit other parts of the country, like New Hampshire. While President Obama points to a lower unemployment rate nationally, she says people in Mississippi, where many are still struggling to find work, feel forgotten. “A lot of people are angry. I’m angry,” she said. People “across the board have issues with the Obama administration and what is happening with our country.”

Frisbie was tempted to support others in the field, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich — though in the end, she felt he lacked the “charisma and drive” to enact real change. In Trump, she sees a successful businessman and negotiator who has the skills to make deals to get the economy moving again. “This country needs a CEO,” she said. “It is a business. It is a company. … He’s the person who can do that better than anybody else.”

She likes his positions on rebuilding the military and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration. For her, it’s a personal issue. A few years ago, her niece was killed in an accident involving an illegal immigrant who was drunk behind the wheel. The incident “devastated” the family. “I welcome anybody who comes here legally,” she said. “Come on in, if you do it right.”

Again and again, Frisbee, who is a Christian, returned to her concerns about the culture of the country, citing drugs and an uptick of crime, especially in the nation’s inner cities. She sees Trump as a vehicle for restoring order in a society that is “frightening” to her. “We have too many internal threats,” she said. “We have the enemy within that we need to convert.”

Frisbie also likes that Trump is largely self-financing his campaign and doesn’t appear beholden to anyone. “He’s not obligated to anybody, so he’s not taking orders or having to vote or push a policy that he doesn’t believe in,” she said.

She shrugs off the concerns that many raise about Trump — that he’s too “rough around the edges,” that he’s inexperienced. “They say he doesn’t like women,” she said. “He obviously likes woman. He’s had three wives!” Asked about the sentiment expressed by many in the upper echelons of the GOP that Trump is “dangerous for the country,” Frisbie says she doesn’t agree but acknowledges he could tone down some of his rhetoric and work to appear more presidential. “I think that would be good for him and be good for the country,” she said. “It might help him with people like me, soften him a little bit. But I am going to vote for him no matter what he does.”

– Holly Bailey

The apprentice

Fredreck “Rick” Cruz believes strongly in Donald Trump — as an educator, an author, a role model and a potential president. As a volunteer in Trump’s field office in Madison Heights — a suburbof Detroit, 15 miles north on I-75 — Cruz was happy to elaborate on his belief in Donald Trump when I showed up on the day of the Michigan primary, defying a strict ban on interviews enforced by two young male staffers. So we went outside to speak.

Cruz, 62, describes himself as a nondenominational Christian and a political independent who has voted in the past for Al Gore and for Mitt Romney. He is the son of a Filipino father who came to the United States after the Second World War and served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years before settling in Michigan and marrying an American woman. Working in the auto industry, and later running a television-repair business, his father “bought his house, he bought cars,” Cruz recalls; “I grew up with steak almost every other night, strawberry shortcake for dessert.” As a teenager, Cruz held a job at General Motors, and after high school he worked in electronics for RCA, then for six years in the Navy and ran his own business building satellite dishes. That venture failed after four years, prompting a personal crisis and a lifelong interest in “self-development.” He became a devotee of motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, started an Amway distributorship, and eventually found his way to the man he considers his mentor, Donald Trump.

What he learned from Trump’s books, and from the Trump University classes he took was that “if you have the desire and there’s nobody out there saying no to you, it’s amazing what you can do.” The classes, he says, were well worth the price of $2,500 each. He went on to invest in real estate, buying a few residential buildings in the suburbs of Detroit, and started his own contracting business, enjoying modest, if not Trumpian, success. He thinks the controversy over Trump University is overblown; his own exposure to Trump’s thinking, he says, “gave me what I needed to not have to worry about a lot of the things that a lot of people have to worry about.” And he thinks Trump can do the same for the country.

Cruz is not an angry Trump voter. If, as Trump himself has admitted, before changing his mind, there are two Donalds, then Cruz is voting for the sober dealmaker, not the ranting bully, the optimist who will make America great again, not the xenophobe who thinks the country has to be rescued from the brink of collapse. Cruz thinks the candidate’s inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants “probably could’ve been said a little differently.” But while “the hateful people in the world are going to think of [Trump’s rhetoric] as hate … the silent majority, or the majority that’s out here, realize that what he’s saying isn’t hate, it’s that we’re all in this together. We’re Americans, and we want to be Americans, and we want a united country.”

Rhetoric aside, Cruz agrees with Trump about the need to secure the border. Reminded that many immigrants are fleeing political violence and social chaos in their own countries as his own father, whose family was killed during the Japanese occupation, did he says he feels “very strongly” that as president, Trump would address that problem at its root. “When you have governments that are killing people and causing them to flee, you’re going to see him bring it to the attention of the world and stop it,” he says confidently. “[Trump] has used the words ‘radical Islamic terrorists,’ and I think the individuals that are not radical Islamic terrorists understand what he’s saying,” Cruz says. “People understand what the media’s trying to do.”

Not even Trump has promised to end the decades-long cycle of political violence that has devastated many Central American countries. But Cruz is a test case for the proposition that it may be possible to believe in Donald Trump even more than Trump does himself. He was inspired by Trump to start his own business and make a success of it. He admires the Republican frontrunner for speaking his mind, for “look[ing] at the big picture,” and is confident that as president he will choose “good advisers” who will help him “make better decisions.” Where some see Trump’s multiple marriages to successively younger models as a personal shortcoming, Cruz views him as a role model for dealing with his own two ex-wives. Cruz really, really believes in Donald Trump.

But even Cruz recognizes that, in this world, it is possible that Trump won’t become the Republican nominee. In that case, though, he knows what he will do in choosing a candidate to back.

“I’m going to follow Donald Trump’s lead,” he says.

– Caitlin Dickson