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Republicans Watch As Life-Long GOP Voters Go Elsewhere


North Carolina has become one of the most hotly contested battleground states in presidential elections. Though for a long time- decades, in fact - it was thought of as reliably red, Republican. From 1980 through 2004, it went for the GOP every single time. Then, in 2008, it went for Barack Obama, then back to the Republicans, narrowly, in 2012. To get a sense of what's going on in North Carolina in the 2016 campaign, NPR's Don Gonyea recently traveled there and is with us.

Good morning.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What has changed in North Carolina?

GONYEA: Well, mostly, its population is growing, and it's becoming more diverse. So you've got rapidly expanding urban and suburban areas, especially in the part of the state around Raleigh and Durham with big universities. That's known as the Research Triangle. And that's where 51-year-old Zan Bunn lives, in Wake County, which is one of the state's fastest-growing areas.

ZAN BUNN: Wake County passed a million people in the past two years. People come here 66 a day, 22 by birth and 44 in a car or a van.

GONYEA: And those numbers are pretty close to being accurate. The point is, there are a lot of transplants in this part of the state. Now, Bunn is a North Carolina native, and she shares a line about a local suburb named Cary. It's spelled C-A-R-Y.

BUNN: Containment area for relocated Yankees.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, when you went to North Carolina, what was the key group that you had wanted to talk to?

GONYEA: Republican candidates have long counted on support from college-educated white women. These are voters that can really matter in suburban swing areas. So that's who I talked to in North Carolina. And when Mitt Romney, back in 2012, blocked President Obama from a repeat win in North Carolina, he had strong support from these very voters. But in 2016, nationally, polls show that Donald Trump is losing them.

MONTAGNE: All right, who did you talk to?

GONYEA: I want to introduce you to three women - all live in the Research Triangle, all are lifelong Republicans. And where they stand underscores the potential trouble for Donald Trump. So let's continue with Zan Bunn, who you just met.

BUNN: I lean right. And I have been a faithful and loyal volunteer in the Republican Party for all of my voting life.

GONYEA: We met at a food court at a local mall. She's a business consultant specializing in computer training. So Zan Bunn was a Ted Cruz supporter - and not just a supporter, but a delegate to the Republican Convention. And even though Cruz still has not endorsed Trump, Bunn says she has for one simple reason.

BUNN: I will not allow a President Clinton, so President Trump sounds pretty good.

GONYEA: But when you talk to her, Bunn is much quicker to say what's bad about Clinton than what she likes in Trump. She does, however, defend Trump's sometimes rude manner and his use of vulgarity. To any voters offended by that, Bunn says, come on.

BUNN: He's from New York. Now, that may not be as appropriate for Kansas or Florida or Tennessee or North Carolina. But to me, I chalk it up to being a New Yorker.

MONTAGNE: So we're hearing there someone who is justifying her support for Donald Trump but sticking with him.

GONYEA: That's right. But that wasn't true for somebody else I met. Here's 32-year-old Mary Beth Ainsworth. She is a former Marine. She served in Iraq. She was in military intelligence. Now she works for a software company. She and her husband have three young kids. A fourth is on the way. Here's her take on what it's been like watching this election.

MARY BETH AINSWORTH: You become disengaged because it's not representative (laughter) of anything that you're looking for.

GONYEA: We talked on her back porch in a new subdivision north of Raleigh, where they live. She doesn't even think Donald Trump is a Republican. And it troubles her that he seems to show so little interest in the complexity of problems, especially on national security.

AINSWORTH: (Laughter) I can only describe him as childish and inappropriate. You know, if anyone were to work for me in a workplace like that, they would be fired. It's completely unacceptable. It's really embarrassing.

MONTAGNE: And does that mean, then, that she's going to vote for Hillary Clinton?

GONYEA: Not a chance (laughter). So - she doesn't trust Clinton on any level, especially to keep the country safe. So this previously loyal Republican sees this election as a lose-lose situation.

AINSWORTH: You know, if we win, Donald Trump does not help the Republican Party. And if we lose, the Republican Party has given this country a third term of Barack Obama.

GONYEA: So Ainsworth is leaning toward Libertarian Gary Johnson.

MONTAGNE: Well, there has been a lot of attention to third-party candidates, given how unsatisfied voters are with Trump and Clinton.

GONYEA: That's right. Though, polls show in North Carolina that Gary Johnson isn't tipping things one way or another. He's not polling strongly enough to do that.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, that third voter that you said you were going to introduce us to...

GONYEA: So meet 51-year-old Peggy Todd. She's a schoolteacher in Raleigh. She's married - two kids, one out of college already. I asked her to describe her politics.

PEGGY TODD: So this is a difficult question because it's a moving bar. I used to say I am a conservative Republican. But I think that today I might be considered way more moderate than I used to be considered.

GONYEA: She says first the Tea Party and now Trump have changed her party, so much so that Peggy Todd has changed her North Carolina voter registration this year from Republican to unaffiliated.

TODD: I've lost a lot of sleep over this (laughter), OK? I love politics - love to talk about it. And this has not been a lot of fun for me. I really didn't see this coming.

GONYEA: Renee, as the primaries played out, Todd was sure of one thing. She could not support Trump. And as he became the likely nominee, she also couldn't ignore or rationalize what she was seeing from him.

TODD: And that the voice of my party now is so not what I signed up for.

MONTAGNE: Don, you really do hear her struggling. What is she going to do?

GONYEA: Earlier in this conversation, we heard from Zan Bunn. And we heard her explain how she can live with voting for Donald Trump. So after watching both conventions, Peggy Todd got to that place with Hillary Clinton. And I asked her if she liked what she saw from Clinton.

TODD: I wouldn't say it that way. I would say I didn't dislike what I saw. It's a funny thing. It's a difference of - I wouldn't have actively sought those opinions, but I can live with those opinions. I can live with that platform.

GONYEA: And as for what any of this means for her vote in elections beyond this one, Todd says she'll see. But for a political party to see lifelong voters go elsewhere is never good news, especially voters who are increasingly influential in these newest presidential battlegrounds.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Don Gonyea.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.