Like a growing number of people showing interest in politics, I’ve grown distrustful of polls over the last few election cycles. Landlines are still weighted heavily, and none of the people I volunteered with on the last several election campaigns or causes have ever been polled. When life put me in a situation where I would be traveling the country by car for a week, I decided to do my own informal polling process with every gas station attendant, waiter, barista or rest stop stranger who would speak with me. All but two were glad to participate.
I simply told these folks that I was a bit of a politics nerd, and though I wouldn’t identify anything about them, I was randomly surveying everyone I interacted with during my travels in hopes of writing a blog post about it. I asked if they planned on participating in the primary process, and if so, which presidential candidate they would be supporting. If they didn’t offer it freely, which was most common, I also asked, “why?”
Despite what CNN or TV punditry would like me to believe, I did not speak with one person who said they would be participating in a primary that would support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Nor did I see any lawn signs or advertising for either of those two candidates, even in Iowa. I did, however, see so very many Bernie Sanders signs on my travels, both official and homemade. In Iowa, I saw one lawn sign for Ted Cruz. Near Cleveland, I spotted a bumper sticker with actor Bruce Campbell’s face on it reading, “Ash 2016.” I am unsure if that has anything to do with the Evil Dead reboot on Starz, but in my extremely unscientific polling process, Bruce Campbell polled above both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
At a gas station near Erie, Pennsylvania, I met a Cruz supporter, one of the very few Republicans mentioned at all in this informal survey. This gentleman was clearly an evangelical Christian and cited several of Ted Cruz’s more fundamentalist positions, such as being opposed to equal rights for the LGBTQ community as reason.
A few of the people I approached said they didn’t participate in primaries. Two were felons who are not allowed to vote. Of those who didn’t participate in the primaries, one was a teenager and another admitted she didn’t know how to vote. I actually looked up her state with her on my phone and explained the process.
“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Overwhelmingly, I was surprised that people across the country told me they were planning on supporting the same candidate that I support. Full disclosure: I support Bernie Sanders, but I purposefully made sure not to wear any Bernie swag on this trip. The folks I interviewed, unless they follow me on Twitter or something, had no way of knowing he was my preferred candidate.
Despite a virtual media blacklisting, Bernie’s message is still getting through. Strangers told me about how they fear the collapse of the middle class, if we don’t elect Bernie. They talked with me about campaign finance reform and why five dollars from every check goes to Bernie Sanders. An older white gentleman at a rest stop chatted with me over vending machine coffee about how Bernie’s platform reminded him of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King. A single mom working the counter at a gas station in Nebraska told me that his campaign has given her a renewed hope for her children’s future. A Vietnam veteran I waited in line behind at a roadside Starbucks explained that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate running that he trusts. We sipped seasonal lattes together for a good twenty minutes talking about veterans’ issues and how Sanders is the only one who makes them a priority.
Only one person I spoke to on the entire voyage believed Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, which is a much different experience than I have daily online. I visited with a minister friend in the Chicago suburbs, and we shared deep dish with a Hispanic parishioner for lunch. This gentleman was certain that Clinton would be the nominee and eventual President because that’s what we’re all conditioned to believe. I should note that while at that restaurant, we also spotted an affluent, older African American couple with Ben Carson’s book on their table. Despite that dining experience, everyone else I spoke with in the region told me there was no way Hillary would carry Illinois after “sticking up” for Rahm Emanuel. There were no other Ben Carson sightings, in book form or otherwise.
Because I am a political junkie, I am also a news junkie, so I expected to be talking to Trump supporters and Clintonistas all across this gorgeous country of ours. I was so very wrong. Americans are much more thoughtful, informed and concerned than interacting with strangers online would have made me to believe. Nobody used the word “socialist” with me. Nobody disparaged Muslims or refugees. Nobody told me terrorism was their biggest concern. Most folks are concerned with income inequality, health care and educating their children. At least, from the random sampling I experienced, Americans want to see Reagonomics or Clintonomics go the way of the dinosaur. I’m certain that had I not been driving, but rather flying first class, I’d have had a different experience. There I go, judging books by their cover again.
To be honest, I have no idea who will win each political party’s political conventions. My instinct is that both conventions will be cantankerous and candidates will be brawling for every delegate. I imagine my own party’s convention to look more like 1968 than the love-fest of 2008, when Clinton conceded to Obama. I don’t think the pollsters and the television pundits know either, I think they’ve a narrative they’re busy trying to sell us. I do know, however, that after spending a week on the road talking to regular people, I have quite a bit more hope in the process than I had previous to that experience.
Originally published for TheElizabethian.