Rocky Point is a quiet, wooded hamlet of about 14,000 people on Long Island Sound in Suffolk County. In every presidential election since at least 1996, a majority of its voters have picked the winner of the popular vote.
Bill Clinton in 1996. Al Gore in 2000 (he lost in the Electoral College when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount of the close vote in Florida). George W. Bush in 2004. Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.
For now, based on numerous but random interviews, Donald Trump appears to have an edge in Rocky Point.
“I think we’re pretty much Trumpland around here,” said Terri Dietz, a 37-year-old Republican. “The Trump cups at 7-Eleven were pretty well gone.”
Actually, the outlook gets murkier when you count the cups, sold each presidential year, at the 7-Eleven here. Franchise owner Jack Rugen said that from Oct. 7 through Nov. 4 the store’s Republican red cups outsold the Democratic blue ones 944 to 516. But 1,170 purple cups were chosen by people declining to express an opinion. They’ll make their final choice known on Tuesday, and Rocky Point will learn if it has picked a winner again.
The community’s racial composition — about 90 percent white — may make it less of a bellwether this year, given the country’s growing diversity and the divisive election campaign, according to Jeffrey Segal, chairman of Stony Brook University’s political science department.
“This is a highly polarized election on factors such as race and ethnicity,” he said, “so what is an essentially all-white community isn’t going to mirror what the rest of the country does.”
Nick LaLota, Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, questioned that, however. He cited a poll suggesting Trump is doing as well if not slightly better with Hispanic voters than the two previous Republican candidates, and pointed to Rocky Point’s support for the nation’s first black president. “I think they vote for the winners regardless of race, and the trend is true until it is not.”
What is clear already in Rocky Point is how damaged Clinton has been by the news about her emails, her campaign manager’s hacked emails released by WikiLeaks, her family’s foundation, her role in Benghazi. Although repeated investigations have found no evidence of wrongdoing in the Benghazi attacks, or grounds for a criminal complaint in her handling of emails, her critics see cover-ups and special treatment.
Even much of her support is of the “lesser of two evils” kind, like that of preschool teacher Chelsea Larson, 29, a supporter of Clinton’s primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I’m not voting for someone, I’m voting against,” she said. Other Sanders supporters in Rocky Point had not yet decided if they would vote for her, or to vote at all. Some will vote for a third party or for Trump.
“I’d rather vote for Trump than a liar,” said Kandy Markiewicz, 44, a dental receptionist who had supported Sanders. Acknowledging the strangeness of going from a Democratic Socialist whose ideas she loved to a capitalist Republican, she shrugged. “I still love him,” she said of Trump. “I think he’s tough. I think he’s a badass, I think he’s a bully and I think that’s just what we need.”
Trump’s flaws have also cost him many votes in this hamlet, where Republican enrollment outnumbers Democrats and many are unaffiliated. “Hillary all the way,” said a couple interviewed outside a supermarket a few days ago. “I wouldn’t want him within a ZIP code of the nuclear button,” said Mary Leckie, a teacher’s aide. Her husband, Rick, a decorative painter, added, “He makes me nervous, and sometimes he makes me a little sick.”
However, his supporters do not see as disqualifying what dismays so many of his critics: his vulgarities and falsehoods, his insults, his record of business missteps and an upcoming fraud trial, his refusal to release his tax returns, his admiration for authoritarian leadership styles and enthusiastic support from neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
On the contrary, his supporters see him as more honest and direct and transformative than his opponent. People think the businessman will spur growth and jobs, replace Obamacare, build a wall, deport immigrants without documents. His very brashness makes people think he can shake things up and make things happen.
“His fresh potty mouth might work for him,” laughed Alyce Fulton, 50, a dental assistant. “Keeping Clinton is like keeping Obama, and I want change. You just get tired of how certain things are handled. I want to see business grow . . . I would actually like to feel safe.”
His flaws, said Jennifer Frankie, 75, a retired nurse and registered Republican, are “minor compared to what she does. With all the things going on, we need somebody who can fix this country.”
Some Trump supporters aren’t totally negative about Clinton. Rick Jacquin, 64, a massage therapist, said he even supported Clinton when she ran in the Democratic primary in 2008 against Barack Obama. But he finds her current agenda divisive. Trump, he said, “is against criminal behavior but he’s not against any group.”
But much of this campaign’s emotion is fueled with rage. “I think she should be in jail,” said William Daly, 40, a Wall Street vice president of mergers and acquisitions.
“The Clintons are just dirty, dirty beyond repair,” said Dennis Meyers, 46, a New York City firefighter, who brushed aside Trump’s fraud trial, bankruptcies and tax history as “all business stuff.”
Cathy Ekstrom, 59, a speech therapist, said, “She uses her political eliteness and money to get away with crimes that the average American would be punished for.” Her husband, Peter, 60, a cabinetmaker, said, “A big part of this equation for me is a total distrust of government. It’s clear they are deceitful . . . Hillary is status quo.”
Clinton also won’t get the vote of Gloria Atwood, 46, a part-time child care worker, either, because of her views on abortion. The first and last time she voted was in 1996, for Bill Clinton. This time, she said, hearing former surgeon and candidate Ben Carson speak at a Christian revival meeting encouraged her to vote again — against Clinton.
But passions are heated in Rocky Point on the anti-Trump side of this electoral equation as well. “If he wins, I’d leave the country — I’d be the first one out,” said Charisse Tyler, 52, who said she didn’t think Trump’s candidacy was serious. “He’s a celebrity and thrives on controversy. He knows it’s not right to disparage the disabled or racial cultures.”
Christina Conigliari’s children are also threatening to move out of the country if Trump wins, she said, “and I may move with them.”
Conigliari, 51, said Trump “doesn’t have a diplomatic bone in his body.” And Karen Rabolt, 59, who voted for George W. Bush twice and Obama twice, calls Trump an “egomaniac. . . . I think he’s misled a lot of people. I don’t think he intends on keeping any of his promises. I think his ego would put us in jeopardy.”
Margret Arfsten, 60, who works in a hospital billing office, said she grew up in New Jersey and was old enough to remember Trump’s promises about “saving Atlantic City” before his casinos went bust, leaving thousands out of work, contractors unpaid, and investors wiped out. “He doesn’t keep his promises,” she said, while her husband, Chris, 67, a retired biologist, said they’d go with Clinton as “the lesser of two evils.”
Tuesday’s vote will force all the still undecideds, the leaners and the unhappy ambivalents into a decision, such as Laurie Tilmont, 40, a second-grade teacher, who supported Sanders in the primary.
”I’m leaning toward Hillary but I want to know if anything else comes up in the next few days. I’ll probably vote for her but not happily.”
Special-education teacher Kim Gange, 47, said she prefers Clinton based on the issues, but her relatives are pushing for Trump. “I’ve gone from a strong dislike of Trump to a maybe, possibility, considering, re-evaluating things.” But she said she doesn’t really like either candidate: “I’m going to make a choice, but I should be saying ‘They’re both great!’ ”
Mostly, people were talking about how discouraging the election process has become, said Howie Robinson, 64, a biochemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory who will vote for Clinton. “There’s the feeling that the election has become so personalized we’ve lost track of the fact that we are trying to elect policymakers. How are the candidates going to enact the policies they talk about?”
Michele Schmitz, 62, who votes in Rocky Point and lives on its border in Miller Place, wonders what happens on Nov. 9, asking of the winner: “How are you going to heal the country? I think we’re all in a horrible situation.”