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
North Carolina electoral map, 2016

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
Guilford County electoral map, 2012
Guilford County electoral map, 2016
Guilford County electoral map, 2016

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
Forsyth County electoral map, 2012
Forsyth County electoral map, 2016
Forsyth County electoral map, 2016

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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