Almost 100,000 Vermonters Voted For Donald Trump. Why?

On Election Day, nearly one in three Vermont voters cast ballots for Donald J. Trump — and VPR reporters teamed up with Brave Little State to hear from a few of them.

Since the election, we’ve heard a lot of comments about the presidential race from you, our audience. Many of you were angry or hopeful or worried about the future.

And some of you were unhappy with our coverage of the election — particularly, with how you felt public radio unfairly portrayed president-elect Donald Trump and his supporters.

The idea for this series came to us from a listener named Dave Carpenter, who lives in the Addison County town of Orwell. Carpenter didn’t vote for Trump, but he was curious about his fellow Orwellians who did. So we paid him a visit to learn more.

Dave Carpenter's curiosity

Profile by Alex Keefe

Last week, Dave Carpenter stopped by the garage of the Orwell Fire Department, because he had a little errand to run. Carpenter is a volunteer firefighter, and he’s also a little intense.

“I am currently putting back my — uh, what’s called an air pack, because I ran the Philadelphia half-marathon this past weekend in my firefighter gear and an air pack,” said Carpenter, 48, after heaving the heavy air tank into a truck for storage.

“I have a, sort of a predisposition to doing things that are challenging for no good reason other than the fact that they are challenging,” he said.

Dave Carpenter recently ran a Philadelphia half-marathon in his firefighter gear, while carrying an air pack. He brings the same intensity to politics, and was surprised when his town, Orwell, went to Donald Trump by 14 votes.
Credit Dave Carpenter, courtesy

Carpenter is equally intense when he begins to talk about the 2016 election. He said he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election, but he wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. He still has a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on his beat-up red Prius.

“I was a Bernie guy,” he said. “And I’m still a Bernie guy.”

Like a lot of Americans, Dave says he stayed up late on election night, waiting for the final call. And like a lot of Americans, he was surprised by Republican Donald Trump’s victory.

“I’m a lawyer, and, you know, sometimes you know you’ve got a really good case, and sometimes you just don’t know,” he said. “And this is one of those. If the country had been a client, I would have said, ‘I don’t know, it looks good, but it could go either way.’ And that’s what happened. And I’m still puzzling through that.”

Dave says he was even more puzzled when he looked up the results for his own town of Orwell: Trump won the town by just 14 votes, after Orwell handed Obama a comfortable victory in 2012.

So Dave wrote VPR a note, asking us to look into not only how Trump won Orwell and other towns, but also why.

"What can we learn about America from the election this year? What are the fears that people have, and what are we going to do to make sure that nobody gets left behind?" — Dave Carpenter, Orwell

For the first part of his question, we did some vote data analysis and found some startling (if slightly misleading) numbers: Trump won 61 Vermont towns this year. In 2012, Republian Mitt Romney won just two.

While it might seem that Trump fared much better than Romney, in fact, he only got about 2,800 more votes than the former Massachusetts governor. So what gives?

The short answer is that lots of Vermont voters cast their ballots outside of the two major parties this year, including for Sen. Bernie Sanders. That allowed Trump to win in towns he might have otherwise lost, had all the Sanders and third-party votes gone to Clinton, said Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson. Trump only won 18 towns with 50 percent or more of the vote; he won 44 with a plurality, of 50 percent or less. 

Related: 5 Things To Know About Vermont's 2016 General Election Results

We also wanted to try to get at the second part of Carpenter’s question: Why did nearly 100,000 Vermont voters support Trump?

Carpenter says he has a hard time squaring the inflammatory things Trump has said with the people in his community he knows who supported him.

“How do you take this guy, who I know, whose kid goes to school with my kid, who would pull me out of a ditch if I ended up in one, who does things for his community — how do I square that up with [Donald Trump?]”

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Carpenter says, even though he might disagree with his neighbors’ politics, he doesn’t think they should be castigated as people Hillary Clinton once called a “basket of deplorables."

Instead, he says now's the time people should be listening to each other, even if they disagree.

“What can we learn about America from the election this year? What are the fears that people have, and what are we going to do to make sure that nobody gets left behind?”

In response to Carpenter's email and his questions, VPR reporters spoke with a number of Vermonters who voted for the president-elect.  As the following stories illustrate, each had different reasons for making their choice.

Trump support in northern border towns

Holland town clerk Diane Judd, left, and James Beauvais, right, cast their votes for Donald Trump. Bruce Wilkie, center, voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

Profile by Rebecca Sananes  

When you get to the end of I-91 in Vermont you can veer left and cross the border into Canada – where a lot of voters disappointed with the recent election results have threatened to go.

Or you can exit right down the road towards the tiny town of Holland – population 588.

Nearly every Vermont town that touches the Canadian border voted for Donald Trump on Nov. 8 — and percentage-wise he won Holland by one of the largest margins. 

In their two-room town office that smells of cinnamon, 58 percent of Holland voters cast their ballots for Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence.

But by the time town clerk Diane Judd was closing the polls at 7 p.m., Vermont had already been called for Hillary Clinton.

“How at 6:59 could they call it when I know for a fact as an election official that we can't count anything until 7 p.m.?” Judd said, standing behind her desk.  “So does that mean that the rural people don't have a voice? It certainly seemed like it.”

Across the country, exit polls showed stark divides in how rural communities voted in the presidential election versus more urban areas.

All but one of these rural, northern border towns in Vermont – Jay – voted for Donald Trump in 2016, although those same towns voted for Obama in 2012.

Judd, who voted for Trump, has been the town clerk in Holland since 2008. She says she saw an uptick in voter turnout.

"How at 6:59 could [AP] call it when I know for a fact as an election official that we can't count anything until 7 p.m.? Does that mean that the rural people don't have a voice? It certainly seemed like it." — Diane Judd, Holland town clerk

“I had a gentleman in his 70's who never voted before in his life who registered to vote and voted in the presidential election,” she says. “So it was a very unusual year, and to have 77 percent turnout, I've been ballot clerk close to 20 years and we've never had that kind of turnout ever, that I can remember.”

In fact, in the northern border towns, there were 747 additional votes in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 2012.

One of the Holland residents to head to the polls was James Beauvais. He says that from the moment he heard the slogan “Make America Great Again,” he knew he would be supporting Donald Trump for president.

Beauvais has lived in the northern Vermont town all his life, and owns a landscaping business. He thinks that recent presidents and policies have left U.S. citizens behind.

“Our focus has been in a global initiatives, instead of one just in the United States,” he said, sitting in the Holland town offices. “So when he wanted to bring it back to kind of mirror the men who built this country and made it great again, that's why I voted for him.”

Despite Trump's statements about Mexicans, people of Muslim faith and women, Beauvais thinks Trump himself is not a bigot — and he supports Trump's proposed wall bordering Mexico.

Beauvais' property literally touches Canada's border. From there, he says he can see the flaws in the U.S. immigration system every day.

“They're actually driving by the illegals working on farms and stopping people that actually reside in our town going to work and taking their time up with them, instead of enforcing the federal laws that are already on the books," he critiqued. "They're getting ignored, and you can see the effects."

In this area, not everyone voted for Trump – or Hillary Clinton.

Bruce Wilkie, a furniture builder in Holland, voted for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

Wilkie is one of 47 people in Holland who voted for candidates other than the two major party nominees. Thirty-one of those votes were write-ins for Bernie Sanders.

“We've watched both Republican administrations and Democratic administrations just tear rural people to shreds, and it's time for something different,” Wilkie said, pounding his fist on the table, drowning out Christmas music playing from the town office radio. “I knew Gary Johnson wasn't going to win and in Vermont I knew Trump wasn't going to win, there was no way. So basically anyone who didn't vote for Hillary in Vermont was throwing their vote away.”

Residents of Holland don't always feel their voices are heard in Vermont politics, either, but they and others are part of the larger movement that will put Donald Trump in the White House come January.

Mary Gerdt of Monkton
Mary Gerdt, of Monkton, says being in the Trump camp had a different feel to it than other political movements.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Profile by Taylor Dobbs

Mary Gerdt lives on a dirt road in Monkton, where she and 359 other residents voted for Trump. Hillary Clinton won the town with almost twice as many votes, but that didn’t darken Gerdt’s mood the morning after the election.

She says being in the Trump camp had a different feel to it than other political movements.

“I connected with a lot of people that were conservative that are disabled, that are Sikhs, Sikhs for Trump, blacks for Trump, it was a big group of Hispanics for Trump, Latinas for Trump. So I think we all kind of coalesced in this group that wasn’t ever there before.”

And that kind of matches Gerdt’s own politics; she describes herself as a ticket-splitter, and her values don’t fit neatly in any political party.

“My parents were both Democrats, you know. It was – it was Madison County, Illinois, I don’t know if you know anything about that, it was very, very liberal,” she says.

She became a nurse in Illinois, then moved to Vermont and met her husband Fred.

“When I came out here, I got hit with some economics right off the bat,” she says. “I took a $5-an-hour cut in pay, we lived in a rental. We ended up meeting Fred. And we got no social services. I’m not saying we should, but we weren’t well-off.”

And she says the way things started going for her seemed wrong. When she was working for the State of Vermont in 2010, she supported Peter Shumlin’s successful bid for governor. But once he took office, Gerdt's state salary wasn't keeping up with her expenses.

"And it just was like, ‘What?' At a minimum I wanted some kind of cost-of-living raise. So here’s a person who’s liberal, but we back-slid on our union contract," she says.

Experiences like that made Gerdt think differently about liberals — but she’s not a Republican hard-liner either. She says she has plenty in common with the left.

"I'm more worried about the world, the earth, our economy, whether we can stay living here ... So I sort of don't care about the [Hollywood Access] comments." — Mary Gerdt, Monkton

“I do a lot with the social programs,” she says. “I believe in Medicaid, I believe in taking care of people that are less fortunate. I’m disabled, I like it that I get an income from being disabled and that I’m free to do what I want to do. I don’t think that has to be contrary to conservative values.”

She says she doesn’t like that Republicans are seen as the party that cuts social programs, and it’s clear that for Gerdt, none of this is an abstraction. Her politics have been shaped by her life experiences.

“Things that happen to you kind of like make you step back and kind of reassess what you believe in and what’s valuable to you,” she says.

And what Gerdt values is complicated. For example, she just wasn't that outraged by the Access Hollywood video featuring Trump bragging about what amounts to sexual assault.

She describes Trump's remarks as "Archie Bunker comments," referring to the 1970s TV character who was offensive on social issues.

The talk about women on that tape just didn't matter to her.

"I can't be bothered,” she says. “I'm more worried about the world, the earth, our economy, whether we can stay living here. I mean it's just like a really ... It's a hard road, and I've been in a lot of pain, so I sort of don't care about the Archie Bunker comments.”

And while she acknowledges he has some personal flaws, Gerdt doesn't think Trump is racist.

"Having listened to some of the people that actually know Donald Trump, he is not a racist. So all the labels that he is getting as far as being racist, I mean, he might be a little bit of a sexist pig," she says.

Her feelings on refugees aren't simple either.

Trump has called for “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.”

To Gerdt, that didn’t sound unreasonable.

“To me it wasn’t about Muslims, it was about figuring out what’s going on, why do these people want to come here, and why can’t we make them a safe space where they live?” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be displaced from Vermont to go to Bulgaria or something, ‘Oh, this is because it’s for your own good.’ No, why don’t you help me make my own space safer?”

Gerdt says she also has concerns about terrorism when it comes to refugees.

And while many Vermonters don’t share Gerdt’s feelings on refugees, she does share the hopes many have for more conversation and understanding between people who disagree.

Michael Spafford of Clarendon
Michael Spafford of Clarendon, with his sons Isaac, 11, left, and Trenton, 13. Spafford, an independent, says he voted for Trump reluctantly, but never thought the former reality TV star would win.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Profile by Howard Weiss-Tisman  

It wasn't easy for Michael Spafford to vote for Donald Trump.

Spafford is 51 and he owns Mike's Country Store in Clarendon. He identifies himself as an independent voter who leans to the right.

"I used to be a Republican, and I was proud to say that I was a Republican, but I can't say that anymore, so I'm independent,” he says. “And I wasn't happy with any, any of the people running. Any of them. Any of the Republicans. I'm embarrassed by the party.”

During the 2012 presidential election, Spafford didn't even vote. He said he couldn't support Romney or Obama.

He didn't think Trump would win the Republican nomination this time around, and couldn't muster any enthusiasm for him.

But, he says, Hillary Clinton was far worse. Spafford didn't believe Clinton's message. He didn't think she really cared about the working class.

With all of the history with the Clinton Foundation and her Wall Street speeches, and emails, it was impossible for him to ignore.

"I had no passion for Trump the entire election, and I had no passion for him when I checked his name. I had no passion for him. It was just totally an anti-Hillary vote,” he says.

"I think it's a huge wakeup call for the Democratic Party, but it's [also] a huge wakeup call for the Republican Party. Look who these guys are saddled with right now." — Michael Spafford, Clarendon

Trump didn't win Vermont — not by a long shot — but he did do better than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and took 59 towns that went for Obama four years ago.

And like the national map, Clinton's support in Vermont was anchored around more densely-populated areas like Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro.

If there was anything like an electoral college in Vermont, the results would have been much closer. In Clarendon, where Spafford lives, Trump outpaced Romney by 6 percentage points.

"I think if we got all of those people together I would have a hard time believing that any of them were passionate about Trump,” he says. “I think it was a protest vote, like myself. It had to have been.”

Spafford was turned off by most of what Trump said during the election. And he can't identify with the Tea Party, or with the far right.

But all those stories in the media that predicted the former secretary of state's win, Spafford says they missed people like him who weren't ready to back somebody like Clinton.

"So, deep in my heart I'm conservative. I'm teaching my kids to love relatives and friends and neighbors who are pro-choice, and try to understand where they're coming from. Don't hate them,” he says. “I'm teaching them to not hate gay people. We have friends who are gay.”

Spafford wasn't the only Vermonter who went into this election feeling uneasy about Trump. The president-elect beat rival John Kasich in the Vermont Republican primary by only 2 points.

Spafford says the presidential election is hardly a victory for the Republican Party.

"And I think it's a huge wakeup call for the Democratic Party, but it's a huge wakeup call for the Republican Party. Look who these guys are saddled with right now. None of them like him. So, a lot of my Republican friends, I saw them all this week at the farmers market, and they all said the same thing: ‘This is the best we got.’”

Spafford says when he sat down to watch the election results, just like most of the rest of America, he expected a Clinton landslide. He never thought that this divisive, former reality TV star could get enough votes to win the presidency.

“I'm very, very disappointed in the Republican Party, that that's all they could do was put him up, and the Democrats, all they could do was put her up,” he says. “There's probably some really good Democrats out there, far better than Hillary Clinton. And they're finding that out now. She didn't listen. She didn't listen to what people wanted.”

Spafford says he's ready to support the new president and give him a chance.

But he's making no predictions about what the Democrats or Republicans might have really learned during the historic 2016 election.

Laura Ryder of Shelburne

Laura Ryder of Shelburne says she doesn't always agree with Trump, but appreciated his message on two issues: national security and the economy.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Profile by Melody Bodette

On Election Day, Laura Ryder walked out of the Shelburne Town offices after casting her ballot.

“I voted for Donald Trump, just because he’s new. In my opinion, I think he has possibilities. To me, Hillary Clinton has already proved what she will do and what she has done. So I’m open to something new and to see if he can do anything better,” she said.

Like many Americans, Ryder stayed up late watching the results and was surprised that Trump won. In the morning she had a message for her four kids.

“I told the kids in the morning, what you need to do is you go to school, you don’t say anything and you don’t gloat. We are a single country full of citizens for America. As a country, whether your candidate won or not, you need to root for the president,” she said.

As Christians, she says her kids have felt a lot of pushback at school for their faith and their parents’ politics. Ryder came to Vermont a year ago so her husband could take a new upper-management position. They're from Missouri, but most recently lived in Texas.

Ryder tends to vote Republican, but says she considers every candidate carefully.

"The Republican Party tends to match my conservative values and moral beliefs — Christian — and they tend to align with that,” she said.

Ryder, 39, stays at home with her kids and makes and sells organic, vegan soaps. She says her religion is the foundation of her family.

Trump has disparaged women and made many statements that have contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance toward immigrants, Muslims and minorities. It can be difficult to see how a Christian could support him. But Ryder says her faith guides her not to judge others.

"We have a whole big government. Trump's not the dictator ... There are other politicians there who can pull back and figure it out.” — Laura Ryder, Shelburne

“What I would ask is that people understand we are still sinners. I am a good sinner,” she said with a laugh. “It’s hard … you don’t throw stones. I think that’s me. That’s where Trump fell in, and if Hillary had won, that’s where I’d be too. I can’t throw stones. Unless I can walk on water, I’m not going to judge other people.”

While she didn’t vote for Barack Obama, she was excited for his message of hope and change — but says she hasn't seen much progress in his eight years in office. And she liked Trump's message on two issues: “National security and the economy were my two biggest that I felt America needs. Get people jobs, keep us safe.”

Still, Ryder doesn't always agree with Trump, and dislikes some of the things he has said and done, especially regarding women.

“I think he’s made some stupid comments. I think he’s said some things that he shouldn’t. His campaign manager, she’s the first woman to successfully run a campaign. There are some things he’s doing for women that excite me — maternity leave.”

As for the way Trump has energized right wing and white supremacist groups, Ryder feels racial tension has increased under Obama's presidency. She says those issues require work and forgiveness on the part of all Americans, not just the president.

“We need to forgive what he said, we need to trust that he’s going to put people in office that are going to look at the country not as white, not as black, not as Hispanic, not as Asian, but as American citizens. And citizens need to put in hard work for themselves.”

She knows Trump has made comments about banning Muslims, and that's where she says she has to put her faith in the rest of the government.

“Let’s say Trump said the problem with America is Christians, and they all need to go. Of course I’d be fearful,” she said. “As a Christian, my most powerful device is to pray to God because I believe God is in charge. We have a whole big government. Trump’s not the dictator. He has things that he can do that are amazing for everybody and the things that may not be amazing for the whole of the country. There are other politicians there who can pull back and figure it out.”

Ryder says she prays for Trump to grow as a person. And while she loves living in Vermont, she knows her faith and her politics are something that set her apart from her neighbors.

“I was certain that after this interview airs I will get a letter that says you are now asked to leave Vermont,” she said with a laugh. But she’s serious. “While the people of Vermont are friendly, they’re not as accepting of ‘outsiders.’ It seems to me that you can live free as long as you agree with our opinions.”

She says unless Americans come together, nothing will change.

This feature is a joint production of VPR News and Brave Little State. Brave Little State's theme music is by Ty Gibbons, and the podcast is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund and Darn Tough Vermont.