In the end, voters decided Donald Trump was the lesser of two evils — at least in North Carolina and other crucial swing states that tipped the Electoral College.

They took a look at a political insider who was tarnished but not criminally charged in an FBI investigation over mishandled emails, who couldn’t shake her husband’s globalist and tough-on-crime legacy, and they settled instead for a brash real estate developer-turned-reality TV star who bragged about groping women and resorted to openly racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic appeals while disrespecting veterans and mocking disabled people.

In polling places scattered around the suburbs of Forsyth and Guilford counties — places like Kernersville, Clemmons, Summerfield and Jamestown — it wasn’t hard to find people voting for Trump on Election Day, and they almost always expressed their preference as a negative.

“Unfortunately, it was for Trump,” said Stephanie Fabrikant, a white unaffiliated voter after leaving her polling place at Glenn High School in southeast Forsyth. “I didn’t like either candidate. I think we could take four years of him. Hillary Clinton — giving her a promotion from secretary of state, I can’t imagine doing that. Take the situation in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans: She lied and refused to take responsibility. People say Donald Trump is a loose cannon, but look at the situation with [Clinton’s] private server: It shows she has no idea about national security and preventing cyber attacks.”

The charge that Clinton lied about the deaths of the four Americans who died during the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi stems from contradictory reports about a gathering at Andrews Air Force Base in which President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton met with grieving families. Some of the family members have stated in media interviews that Clinton told them the attack was motivated by an American film mocking the prophet Mohammed — something she knew at the time to be untrue — while other family members have said she said nothing of the sort, according to Politifact.

The leaked 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that revealed Trump talking about grabbing women’s genitals and trying to seduce married women was supposed to torpedo the GOP nominee’s chances with white women in the suburbs, but many of them found Clinton to be the more toxic candidate.

“It was a very difficult decision to vote for Donald Trump,” said Tina Swisher, a registered Republican who wore an American flag sweater and brought her three sons — 10-year-old twins and an 8-year-old — with her to vote at Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kernersville. “I could not vote for Hillary.”

Swisher’s aversion to Clinton went back well beyond the candidate’s time in Washington, to when she served as first lady while her husband was the governor of Arkansas, although she did not name anything specific.

“It’s her whole life story — I don’t have that feeling of trust,” she said. “It’s not just the email server. It’s not just Benghazi. It’s not just her marriage.”

Asked to describe her reservations about Trump, she named qualities that could also be considered appealing.

“He is a bit over the top,” Swisher said.

“That’s what you love about him,” her 8-year-old son interjected.

“That’s what I do not love about him,” Swisher corrected. “He is the lesser of two evils.”

Trump’s treatment of women didn’t particularly bother her, she said.

“He’s a man, and I don’t know if there’s hardly ever been a man that hasn’t said something that could be construed by someone as offensive,” Swisher said.

“I like that he’s a man’s man,” she added.

It’s important to note that the ambush that overwhelmed the Clinton forces in North Carolina — along with other states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, where they felt relatively assured of victory — did not take place in urban, Democratic-leaning counties like Forsyth and Guilford. Trump banked 69,435 more votes in North Carolina than Mitt Romney — the party’s previous nominee — did in 2012 by driving up his totals in a mix of rural and suburban counties, including Brunswick (+7,697) in the state’s southeast corner; Wilkes (+6,098), a conservative redoubt between Winston-Salem and Boone where the annual MerleFest takes place; Johnston (+5,635), to the southeast of Raleigh; and Gaston (+5,329) and Union (+5,138), two suburban counties that flank Mecklenburg, home to Charlotte. The upsurge of support for Trump flipped three counties in the Sandhills region around Fayetteville, and four counties in the rural northeastern part of the state that went for Obama four years ago.

North Carolina electoral map, 2016

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Clinton’s election-eve rally in Raleigh likely helped build a net gain of 31,091 votes in Wake County over Obama’s 2012 performance, and Mecklenburg likewise banked 19,996 votes above the previous benchmark. Clinton also posted gains in Durham (+7,559); Orange (+5,204), home to UNC-Chapel Hill; and Buncombe (+4,312), home to liberal Asheville. Guilford and Forsyth counties, anchoring the state’s third largest urban region, contributed relatively little to Clinton’s effort, improving on Obama’s 2012 performance by only 1,584 and 165 votes, respectively. Ultimately, Clinton’s gains in 16 counties proved to be an inadequate firewall that was overwhelmed by the Trump insurgency, which swept across 82 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, helping him widen his margin of victory to 3.8 points, in comparison to the 2 points that Romney held over Obama in 2012.

Guilford County electoral map, 2012

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Guilford County electoral map, 2016

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Voting behavior in the presidential campaign reflected a growing urban-rural divide in North Carolina that saw Guilford and Forsyth each tack 3.1 points to the left compared to 2012, with the Democratic nominee’s margin increasing from 16.4 to 19.5 points in Guilford and from 7.2 to 10.3 points in Forsyth. Democratic gains in the two counties are not so much explained by voters rallying behind Clinton as a fall-off in support for Trump compared to Romney, with a deficit of 7,328 votes in Guilford and 5,275 votes in Forsyth.

Forsyth County electoral map, 2012

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Forsyth County electoral map, 2016

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Hillary Clinton had long acknowledged that she wasn’t a natural politician, and her speech in Philadelphia the day before the election attempted to shift voters’ focus from the flawed candidates at the top of the ballot to issues she believed they cared about that would weigh in her favor.

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Karen Davis, Kevin Costello, Jamie Lynn Courtney and David Sojka waited to voted about an hour before the polls closed at Griffith Fire Station on Election Day. (photo by Jordan Green)

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“If you believe that America thrives when the middle class thrives, then you have to vote,” Clinton argued, launching into a litany of issues that included educational equity, college affordability, criminal justice reform, gun safety, raising the minimum wage and equalizing women’s pay.

“So it’s not just my name or Donald Trump’s name on the ballot tomorrow,” she concluded. “Every issue you care about is at stake.”

The urgency of Clinton’s appeal didn’t resonate with the broad electorate. In what felt like an omen of misfortune for the Democratic candidate, a speech by Bill Clinton at UNCG in Greensboro less than 24 hours before the polls opened was interrupted by a group of protesters who unfurled a banner expressing support for the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and chanted, “You have blood on your hands,” “Black lives matter,” and, “Shame.”

Lucia Sedda, one of the protesters, said in an email to Triad City Beat: “We think Hillary, who supported the crime bill, her husband, [who] has called black people ‘super predators,’ should be held accountable just like any other politician.”

The Clintons have experienced the curse of living through the end of one major political epoch and into another one that is driven by starkly different currents of popular sentiment. President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, embracing a globalist transformation that was supposed to yield widely shared benefits to citizens who trained up for the new jobs of the knowledge-based economy, but instead his administration augured the beginning of a new Gilded Age with an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Despite eventually opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Hillary Clinton was unable to persuade voters that she was a credible messenger for sound trade policy.

Similarly, Bill Clinton succeeded at the political project of co-opting two decades of Republican tough-on-crime policies, but then wound up presiding over the largest escalation of mass incarceration in history. Hillary Clinton declared during the primaries that it “was time to end the era of mass incarceration,” but didn’t appear to gain significant traction from the issue.

The most dramatic takeaway from election numbers in Guilford and Forsyth counties might be a repudiation of Trump in predominantly white areas of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and their surrounding suburbs, coupled with steep drop-off in support for Clinton in overwhelmingly Democratic precincts with large African-American populations. In precincts in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point with upwards of 80 percent African-American voter registration, Clinton cornered more than 90 percent of the vote, but suffered drop-offs from Obama’s numbers ranging from 15 to 30 percent.

John Dinan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, said in an email that political scientists are challenged in analyzing voting patterns that depart from prior elections to determine whether they represent “enduring changes or whether these developments are merely a product of particular candidates and circumstances.”

He said, “This was a challenge in assessing the 2008 and 2012 elections, where African-American voters and millennials turned out to vote at higher rates than in prior elections. Going into the 2016 election, a key question was whether key groups that made up the Obama coalition would continue to turn out to vote for Democratic candidates other than Obama. The general verdict post-2016 — and this is evident in North Carolina voting patterns and in other states — is that higher turnout rates among these groups were to a significant extent tied to Obama, and it will be difficult for other Democrats to count on the same level of turnout from these groups moving forward.”

While the Democratic vote weakened across predominantly black areas of the three cities, support for Clinton rallied almost everywhere else, with the candidate posting gains in Democratic-leaning and GOP-heavy precincts alike. Clinton flipped several precincts across Greensboro, including a wide swath of predominantly white neighborhoods clustered between Bryan Boulevard and West Market Street, northern suburbs nestled in the lakes and a band of precincts near the airport, while also converting a handful of precincts on the north end of High Point. In Winston-Salem, Clinton flipped several precincts on the west side. Outside of Winston-Salem, precincts where Trump received his largest vote totals — located in Lewisville, Clemmons and Kernersville — also showed some of the most dramatic drop-offs from Romney’s 2012 performance, with deficits in two exceeding 400 votes.

Ned Keskin, a Turkish immigrant, was the first person in line to vote at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro when the polling place opened at 6:30 a.m. on Election Day. Keskin said he generally identifies with the Republican Party for reasons of patriotism, and because he supports gun rights and the military. But this year, he used his ballot to express his disgust for Trump.

“I went with Hillary and Democrats all the way,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Trump, I would have voted Republican all the way down the ballot. I’m punishing the Republicans for being so stupid as to nominate someone like Trump.”

Keskin said he dislikes Trump because of “the way he talks about blacks, immigrants and minorities in general.” He added, “He doesn’t inspire confidence. Putin would eat him alive.”

Griffith Fire Station, a Democratic-leaning precinct on the Davidson county line with a large pool of unaffiliated voters, tilted towards Clinton. (photo by Jordan Green)

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Similar to fluctuations in the black and millennial votes, Dinan said it’s equally difficult to gauge whether the anti-Trump vote represents a permanent shift or a one-time aberration.

“We face similar challenges in assessing whether Trump’s expanded support among non-college educated voters and Clinton’s higher support among college-educated voters is likely to be replicated by Republican and Democratic candidates in future elections,” he said. “Certainly there are reasons why these developments might be rooted in the candidates and circumstances of the 2016 election and not transferrable to other Republicans and Democrats in coming years. At the same time, there are reasons why the division in 2016 based on voters’ level of formal education is tied to a more enduring trend whereby moral and social issues have assumed increasing prominence alongside of and to some extent in place of economic issues.”

Latino voters interviewed for this story on Election Day, particularly young people, indicated they were motivated by Trump’s racist rhetoric — calling undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers — and pledges to build a wall along the southern border. Still, it’s difficult to determine how much the Latino vote factored in voting patterns in Forsyth and Guilford counties because the populations is relatively dispersed, and precincts with higher Latino registration did not produce measurable gains for Clinton.

Maria Fernandez, a 21-year-old registered Democrat who graduated from Salem College earlier this year, voted at Griffith Fire Station, a busy precinct on the Davidson county line that went for Clinton.

Noting her Latina heritage, Fernandez said, “I don’t want someone like Trump to be president. I think he’s a very big racist, and what he says is ridiculous.”

At the same polling place, Frederick Karnap, a retired hospital-finance director who is registered as a Republican, voted for Trump. He said securing the border is important to him. He added that he supports raising the minimum wage — a position generally not associated with the GOP — as a way to address labor competition from undocumented workers.

“We need a change in Washington,” he said. “It seems to me it’s more about [politicians] being reelected, not serving all of the American people.”

Like others who voted for Trump, Karnap seemed almost obliged to acknowledge the candidate’s faults.

“I hate that he’s such a butthole,” he said. “We had a bad choice. Hillary is a crook. Donald has too big an ego.”

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