How did undecided Texans gear up for their presidential pick? This is part five of a series following four voters through the last month of the election. Take a listen to parts one, two, three and four.
It was Election Day in Tyler, Texas. The weather was 63 degrees, overcast and a little humid for November. More Texans than ever before had gone to the polls during early voting – but not Josh Thompson. It was 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and he was running out of time.
“My polling place is less than a mile from my house, and I told my wife I still wasn’t 100 percent sure what I was going to do,” Thompson says. “As I was pulling in the parking lot, I turned my truck off, sat in my truck a few minutes, just really gave it a final thought.”
He was trying to decide between Libertarian Gary Johnson and Republican Donald Trump. But he didn’t find any clarity inside the truck. He walked into Chapel Hill High School, still without a choice. He stood in line – still nothing. The decision only hit him when he walked into the voting booth.
“That is the honest truth,” he says.
Thompson has been telling me for over a month that he’s a guy without a candidate. But he believes in voting. So this was his final electoral calculus:
“Up until that day I was really thinking about voting for Gary Johnson,” Thompson says. “That’s where I was leaning the entire election. I really felt like I wanted my vote to go against Hillary [Clinton] more than I wanted to vote for anybody. I really did not want another four years of Clinton scandals, I just didn’t want to endure that. So I ended up voting for Donald Trump.”
In the final moments, Thompson decided to cast a vote for the person who’d do the most damage to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances.
If a pollster had called Thompson’s house at any time during the campaign, he wouldn’t have said he was voting for Trump. He didn’t know he would. And he said he didn’t feel great about it afterward.
“Honestly, I walked out and I kinda was like I need to go take a shower,” Thompson says. “I don’t love who I voted for, I need to go take a shower. I feel dirty now that I voted for Donald Trump.”
Make that “President-elect Donald Trump”, who won the electoral college, but not the popular vote.
Richard Keller in Fort Worth is still trying to get over the shock of that phrase. Keller voted early for Clinton to try to prevent a Trump victory. He normally votes Libertarian.
“We had the two most unliked presidential candidates in history,” Keller says. “So that’s why it was hard to choose. It was the choice between getting a shot and getting a shot.”
For San Antonian Blanca Morales, that choice became pretty clear in the final few weeks. She’d been torn between Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But Morales says her choice gradually became clear as Clinton seemed to gain momentum in Texas and Morales’ distaste for Trump grew.
“I voted for Hillary Clinton,” Morales says. “I just thought ‘You know what? I’m not going to be able to sleep at night if I vote for a third party and who, yes, does align with my personal values. However, it won’t actually help to prevent Donald Trump from being voted into office.’”
South of Houston in Sweeny, Dawn Pekar had narrowed her choice to Johnson and Stein. But during early voting, something changed.
“I ended up voting for a woman. And she’s not a secondary color,” Pekar says. “I voted for Hillary.”
Pekar worked at a polling location in Brazoria County, where 60 percent of voters chose Trump. That’s the only candidate she says she didn’t consider. The fact that so many people in her community voted for him ate at her.
“90 percent of the people that I helped were voting for Trump,” she says. “And just to counterbalance that, my microscopic notch went to Hillary. Normally I’m in a little bubble as far as my political leanings and decisions and thoughts. This is the first time I’ve been affected by the people around me. I was like ‘Ok, you’re voting for this guy? Well I’m voting for the opposite guy, rather than who I really align with.’”
Pekar says she’s satisfied with her decision. But she can’t say that for every choice she made on Election Day. She stopped at a store on her way home. It was after 10 p.m., and Trump – the man she says she’s loathed for 30 years – was on his way to victory. So she picked up some sushi and six-pack.
“I realized I only had twenty dollars so I either had to put up my sushi or my beer,” Pekar says. “So I picked the sushi, but I really needed the beer more.”
So with sushi in one hand and no beer in the other – on a day when she’d voted for her first Democrat for president – Dawn Pekar went home to watch Donald Trump seal the election.
In the end, each of the undecided voters we tracked either backed a Democrat or a Republican. But none of them really voted for a candidate. They voted against the person they most wanted to keep out of office. They were all at least a little surprised by that.
If you followed their decision-making over the last several weeks – you might be surprised too. As many pollsters and pundits found out, the decisions people make perhaps aren’t quite as predictable as we thought.