NEW YORK (SP) – In the beginning, many took it as a joke: A billionaire developer, riding his gilded escalators down from his Manhattan penthouse, his third wife at his side, to announce he was running for president. Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” blared from the speakers.
No way could Donald Trump eclipse the seriously wonky political heir Jeb Bush or the fresh-faced Gen Xer Marco Rubio.
“It was funny then, but I always had a little bit of dread,” said Kiesha Garrison, a 36-year-old wife and mother living in Bellevue, Washington. “There were so many people saying they wanted to run for president. It seemed like a media ploy, something that would get his name out there. But it didn’t seem like something serious.”
Ten months later, it’s serious. After Tuesday’s Indiana primary, Trump is the presumptive Republican candidate for president, following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt (as well as Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole and Wendell Willkie).
A lot of people are surprised, to put it mildly.
Said Judy Green, 62, of Des Moines: “It’s hard for me to believe that this has happened, to tell you the truth. It scares me because I don’t know what people’s values are anymore and that’s what scares me about it. I’m hoping it’s just that they’re frustrated and they want something new and different.”
Chelcee Lee, a 19-year-old student at West Virginia University studying criminal justice, said she initially thought Trump’s candidacy was a publicity stunt, or even a hoax. Now that voters have legitimized his campaign, Lee said she feels like “this country is a business.”
There were others who were more prescient and supportive from the start — or at least more open to someone and something new.
Barb Raney, a 58-year-old patron at Lou’s Diner in downtown Bradenton, Florida, recalled thinking, “Why not him?” She maintained then, as she does now: “He can do just as good a job as anyone else. We’re tired of what’s been happening in politics. We want someone different. And he’s different.”
“I liked him from the beginning,” said Renee Shopoff, 53, Raney’s lunchmate and co-worker. “Because of ‘The Apprentice,’ and just knowing how successful he’s been in business.”
Roger Willett, too, has stuck with Trump all along, “right off when he was running.” The 51-year-old Republican lives just outside the small town of Covington, Indiana, and voted for Trump in that state’s primary on Tuesday. Speaking outside his polling place at the local high school, Willett said Trump appealed to him because he is not a career politician, and because he has focused on the economy, terrorism and immigration: “We just need to clean up all the illegals out of our country and make a future for our kids,” said Willett, who works as a driver escorting oversize truck loads.
Greg Coverdale, a 39-year-old father of two and a real estate investor living in Wilmington, Delaware, supported Trump’s candidacy at first, drawn to his success in business and agreeing with his thoughts on immigration — which Coverdale thought were taken out of context.
But as the campaign continued, Coverdale found it hard to take Trump seriously, and was offended by his comments about Muslims, his response to the endorsement of ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and personal attacks on other candidates.
“For me, Trump was just too polarizing,” he said. “I was really taken aback and had to put Trump on my ‘no-vote’ list. His integrity started being compromised. I felt that he was moving away from good judgment … and just pandering to a certain group of individuals to get votes.”
In interviews Wednesday around the country, there was a common refrain: Trump essentially closed the deal with his potent blend of cold hard cash (though he spent less than other, unsuccessful candidates) and social media prowess.
“It’s not surprising because it re-enforces the ideology that if you possess wealth you can accomplish anything,” said 21-year-old Muhammad Musleh, a biochemistry student at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Kenny Chavez, a 57-year-old artist from Albuquerque, thinks Trump’s ties to television helped clinch the nomination.
“We value entertainment and we are one big reality show,” he said. “It shows how messed up we are that he has gotten this far.”
Errin Haines Whack from Philadelphia, Russell Contreras from Albuquerque, David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois, and Covington, Indiana, and Aleksandra Vujicic from Des Moines, contributed to this story.