CINCINNATI — Back in February, when the reality of a Donald Trump presidential candidacy finally began sinking in, thousands of conservatives started the Never Trump hashtag to express their disapproval. But now, it seems, the tables have turned: Trump is drawing scores of supporters who don't particularly like him, but who are pissed off and care even less for Hillary Clinton.
They're the "Never Hillary" voters, and they're turning out — often reluctantly — in droves to Trump's rallies.
Though it's difficult to quantify the level of voters' reluctance, at Wednesday's rally in Cincinnati most Trump supporters who spoke with BuzzFeed News expressed only a begrudging acceptance of the candidate. Sandy Clark, for example, told BuzzFeed News she was supporting Trump despite knowing that "he's not a real conservative."
"I want to see anybody but Hillary," she said on her way into Wednesday's rally.
Sandy Clark, left, and Jeff and Brandon Gibson, right.
Across the parking lot, Brandon Gibson — who attended the rally with his father, Jeff — expressed a similar sentiment. Like many at the event, Gibson is a former John Kasich supporter and said he came around to Trump "simply because of the Supreme Court and what's at stake."
"Hillary stands for the complete opposite of what's needed," he said.
The reaction is similar to many BuzzFeed News has encountered at recent rallies in North Carolina, Nevada, Texas, and Georgia. In Raleigh Tuesday night, Mike Valcheff showed up to the rally wearing a Reagan–Bush '84 shirt and said he was a former supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He ultimately decided to support Trump, calling the candidate "electric, captivating," but said he was unsure if he could actually win the White House.
"It's tough to say," Valcheff said.
The Reagan–Bush shirt is a common sight at Trump rallies these days, and is a sort of proverbial secret handshake for reluctant supporters who see themselves as traditional conservatives. Every person encountered by BuzzFeed News wearing the tees has said they previously supported another candidate, often Cruz.
Reluctant Trump supporters at rallies in Cincinnati, left, and Atlanta, right.
None of this is to say there aren't die-hard, longtime Trump supporters at the candidate's rallies. There are, and lots of them.
But as BuzzFeed News has spoken with hundreds of rally attendees in recent months, the experience has increasingly shifted from finding mostly hardcore supporters who have been with Trump from the beginning to more who plan to vote in protest against Clinton. It's a shift that cuts against the stereotype of Trump supporters as a group of rabid fans and political misfits. Instead, rank and file Republicans have been grappling with their controversial nominee much in the same way their leadership has. And in the end, many say they've come around not because Trump grew on them, but rather because Clinton didn't.
Not all of these "Never Hillary" voters are immediately recognizable. Bill Feldhaus, for instance, was wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and attended Wednesday's rally with Carrie Ledbetter, a former Ben Carson supporter who dressed in a tie-dyed Trump shirt. But Feldhaus said he was barely a Trump supporter at all; he described himself a former Cruz supporter in search of a moderate candidate.
"If the Dems would run somebody who was more in the middle, they could earn my vote," he said.
Ray Oak was another recent Trump convert. Oak — who showed up outside the Cincinnati rally Wednesday with a handgun and an assault-style rifle — said he formerly supported Cruz due to the Texas senator's stance "as a constitutionalist."
Like others at recent Trump rallies, Oak came around after Trump effectively locked up the nomination. At Wednesday's event, he stood outside chatting with other attendees and police. In between those conversations, he told BuzzFeed News he believes Trump will be an advocate for the second amendment. But like many other Trump supporters, his top priority is averting the alternative: a Clinton presidency.
"Hillary," he added, "is the Antichrist."