Political Notebook

Some central San Joaquin Valley voters love Trump, but enough to vote for him?

Then-mayor Alan Autry listens as Donald Trump discusses his interest in buying the Running Horse golf course during a 2007 visit to Fresno. Today, Autry doesn’t know if he could vote for Trump, a GOP presidential candidate. Autry said he’d have “to talk to him and ask him some very pointed questions before to see if I could vote for him. But he hasn’t called me yet. I’m probably way down on his list to call.”
Then-mayor Alan Autry listens as Donald Trump discusses his interest in buying the Running Horse golf course during a 2007 visit to Fresno. Today, Autry doesn’t know if he could vote for Trump, a GOP presidential candidate. Autry said he’d have “to talk to him and ask him some very pointed questions before to see if I could vote for him. But he hasn’t called me yet. I’m probably way down on his list to call.” Fresno Bee file photo

Frustrated and fed up with what they see as politics as usual, some central San Joaquin Valley voters are following the lead of others across the nation and turning to the fiery, off-the-cuff non-politican in the 2016 presidential race.

That would be Donald Trump.

They love that Trump says what’s on his mind and doesn’t worry about offending people — even his fellow Republicans. They say he’s voicing their frustrations about Washington politics. They want him to shake up the presidential race, which they say mostly is filled with cautious candidates who religiously adhere to talking points vetted by aides and who worry more about offending one constituent group or another than actually discussing their true political positions.

In short, they say Trump is a breath of fresh political air.

“He doesn’t need to be wined and dined by anybody,” said Sanger nurse Carolyn Dodd. “He has the freedom to speak out and not worry about the political correctness that muzzles everyday Americans.”

But make no mistake: While some Valley voters love the billionaire real-estate mogul and his seemingly unscripted rhetoric, in most cases it feels more like a fling than a true romance. The reason? Most say they don’t like Trump enough to actually vote for him.

Dodd’s “top tier” of preferred candidates, however, is very short — and doesn’t include Trump. She likes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or could also see herself voting for former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Trump? “I have to tell you I wouldn’t vote for Trump because he’s not a constitutionalist like I am,” Dodd said.

Voters like Dodd, 57, fit the mold of many local Trump supporters. Though not universal, Trump seems to have found niche support locally among very conservative or tea party Republicans, or those so frustated with the GOP they are loathe to be associated with it. That support doesn’t appear to have migrated to the party’s mainstream base, and certainly not to many Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents.

That’s not to say Trump doesn’t have a chance at winning the Republican presidential nomination. He continues to top polls of Republican presidential contenders. A new Quinnipiac University National Poll released Thursday was the latest to show Trump in front of his fellow Republicans.

The important part is what happens as the Republican field — currently 17 candidates are considered viable — winnows.

Beyond Trump’s current lead, the Quinnipiac poll held mostly bad news. Though the general election is still 15 months away and much could change, the poll found he’d lose to any Democratic opponent — not just former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but also Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden, an undeclared potential candidate.

Even worse, 30% of Republican respondents said they would definitely not support Trump.

Well-known statistician Nate Silver looked at favorable vs. unfavorable ratings, and found that Trump was 13th among the 17 GOP hopefuls. Since July 18, Trump’s average favorability rating was 47%, but his average unfavorability was 43%. Silver concluded that Trump was “disliked by most people but with a few very passionate admirers.”

Just wait, said 67-year-old Prather resident Randell Widner, a Trump fan.

Trump reminds Widner of Harry S. Truman. The former president, Widner said, would “say an awful lot of things. He was completely off the cuff and would say what was on his mind with very little filter going on.”

A businessman, not a politician

It’s the same with Trump, who is a businessman and not a politician, Widner said.

“So I think he’s on a learning curve right now,” he said.

Widner cited former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said in a recent interview that Trump is evolving and getting more selective in what he says. That could help Trump, who might hone his loose-cannon image and meld it with the rebel edge that he has used to tap into the anger toward government felt by many Americans. That’s fine with Widner, as long as Trump doesn’t “hire people to tell him what to say.”

Former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry agreed. He said Trump’s strength is that he says what he really feels.

“I think he’s good for the process,” Autry said. “What he brings to the process could be beneficial to everybody running.”

That includes not just Trump’s fellow Republicans, but Clinton and Sanders, too.

“This whole process of running one way to win a primary and another way to win the general (election) has never resonated with me,” Autry said.

Still, Autry, like others, is not committed to Trump, even though he has a unique perspective. Autry got to know Trump personally back in 2007, when the businessman had a six-month dalliance with Fresno over the potential purchase of Running Horse, a proposed housing/golf course development just west of town. Trump eventually passed. The property is now an almond orchard owned by Granville Homes.

Despite that, Autry doesn’t know if he could vote for Trump. He said he’d have “to talk to him and ask him some very pointed questions before to see if I could vote for him. But he hasn’t called me yet. I’m probably way down on his list to call.”

But if they did talk, Autry said he’d tell Trump to learn the difference between a baseball bat and a fly swatter — and when to use one or the other.

So far, it’s pretty much been the baseball bat all the time, and that is one thing that has won Trump local fans on the political right. The things that helped warm local voters to Trump were, among other things, his comments about Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was shot down and help captive as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said in what proved to be very controversial comments. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Some Valley voters liked it even more that the comments rankled “establishment” candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. All put out statements condemning Trump. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator and personal friend of McCain’s tweeted, “If there was ever any doubt that @realDonaldTrump should not be our commander in chief, this stupid statement should end all doubt.”

Both men traded barbs before Trump publicly gave out Graham’s cell phone number at a South Carolina rally.

The Valley voters who like Trump’s brashness think candidates such as Bush and Graham are part of the problem because they are part of the mainstream Republican Party, which they say really isn’t much different than the Democratic Party. Graham has been a senator for more than a dozen years and before that served in the U.S. House.

“I like that he says what he thinks and doesn’t really care what people say about him,” said Teresa Sullivan, a 20-year-old Riverdale resident. “In my opinion, that’s something we need. If elected and in office, we need somebody who is not afraid to voice their opinion.”

Giving other Republican hopefuls a jolt

Local Trump aficionados hope he can jolt other Republican presidential hopefuls into being more assertive on the campaign trail, to not relying on talking points written by aides after studying polling and consulting with focus groups.

Already, some wonder if sharp public comments by presidential hopefuls Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are part of the “Trump effect.”

Huckabee compared a controversial nuclear weapons deal with Iran championed by President Barack Obama to the Holocaust, and Cruz — a favored candidate for many Valley voters who admire Trump — accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying to his colleagues..

The Cruz comment drew rebukes from establishment Senate Republicans.

Trump gives voice to everything that goes against the establishment, Widner and others said.

Still, Widner isn’t totally sold on Trump. A Stanford educated civil engineer who ended up with a career as a Hollywood stuntman, Widner remains undecided, but prefers Trump or Cruz. He also had good words for Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Sullivan says “at this point, I’m not a big (Trump) supporter … but I like some things he’s done and said.” She specifically cited Trump’s comments on securing the border with Mexico. Trump has said it is too easy to illegally cross the border, and in one of his earliest controversial comments, said Mexico was “not sending their best,” instead sending those who bring with them drugs, crime and rape.

It all raises the question: if Trump is so well liked, especially by those who think the federal government is a cozy club that has forgotten who it serves, will anybody actually vote for him?

Yes, says Teresa Salvidar.

“I like him,” the 60-year-old Clovis resident says of Trump. “I also like a couple of other candidates, but I would vote for him. I think we need a strong person as president. Some others are worried about being politically correct, holding hands across the aisle. I don’t want a candidate that is going to wimp out. They need to stand up for what they believe in and call it right or wrong. I like that (Trump) is a strong candidate.”

Salvidar also said Trump has the personal fortune to stay in the race — even if he is losing primary elections.

California’s June primary comes late in the game, often at a time when a candidate has the nomination locked up, or at least is headed that way. Her hope is that Trump will see it through to the end, good or bad. Even if he doesn’t win, she said, he can help shape the eventual Republican winner.

“I think Trump has lifted the whole level of the game,” she said. “You gotta up your game or you better call it a day.”