Donald Trump at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. (Jim Cole / AP)

“Would [Donald Trump] have been their first choice?” veteran conservative activist Frank Visco asked me. “Probably not. But the Republicans will come home.”

The phrase was familiar, something I’d observed occasionally while covering Republicans since Ronald Reagan. When threatened with defeat, even of a candidate they don’t like, Republicans tend to return to their Grand Old Party, like estranged children straggling home for Thanksgiving.

This happened most notably with Richard Nixon in 1968, helping give him his close victory over Hubert Humphrey. But Nixon was a real Republican, with long party ties forged during the Cold War. Is the same phenomenon happening now with Donald Trump, the adventurer who loves Vladimir Putin and who became a Republican late in life and only for his own convenience? Yes, Visco said in our coversation, because 60 to 70 percent of people think Hillary Clinton “is dishonest … [and they say] ‘tell me what Trump has done other than allegations.’ “

I wanted to check with Republicans after a crucial moment in the presidential campaign. Last week, FBI Director James Comey handed them an invaluable gift. It was his hit job in the form of a letter to Republican congressional committee chairs, revealing new emails that could damage Clinton.

Finding Republicans from my base in liberal, urban, heavily Democratic Los Angeles isn’t always easy. That’s true in many areas of heavily Democratic California. So I drove to the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County. The region’s demographics and middle- and working-class economy make it seem more like the Midwest than progressive coastal California, with its booming tech industry and costly real estate. The Antelope Valley is about 70 percent Democratic, but Republicans have turned out in big enough numbers to elect a Republican to Congress (Steve Knight) and another one to the state Assembly (Tom Lackey).

I stopped by the Antelope Valley Republican Party headquarters. A woman greeted me, and I introduced myself and handed her my Truthdig business card. She left to fetch the boss, a man who introduced himself as George—no last name given. He said he couldn’t talk to me. I’d have to call the chairman, Drew Mercy. I added Mercy’s name to a list of Republicans’ phone numbers someone had given me.

I could see this wouldn’t be simple. The Antelope Valley is a sprawling area carved out of the desert, and I’d be driving for hours trying to find offices and homes. I’d have to go home and try to reach people by phone.

That wasn’t easy, either. Of the people on my list, just two talked to me: Frank Visco and Phyllis Reilly, another Republican activist. Some Republicans, it appears, feel the same way about reporters as they do about Clinton.

Visco was brusque—“I’ve got five minutes for you”—but informative. He told me about the economic currents shaping the Antelope Valley. The recession hit hard in 2007, with many housing foreclosures and plant closings among the once-prosperous aerospace companies surrounding nearby Edwards Air Force Base. “The economy is 70 percent of what it should be,” Visco said. “It’s getting better slowly, but economic policies have gotten worse in this country, particularly in the Antelope Valley. [We] need new homes; construction is very stagnant.”

Reilly also pointed to problems with “the economy [and] aerospace,” when I asked her about economic troubles.

As for Trump, she said, “The worst Republican is better than the worst Democrat.” She wants Republicans to “rally around him. [Clinton’s] crimes are far worse than his behavior.”

These conversations mirror what polls say is the thinking process in the states that will decide the election—and where Trump is edging closer to Clinton. Our discussions also echo the Republican line across the country. Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said that “the latest polls have Donald Trump leading nationwide in the race for president of the United States. Democrats and independents are joining this movement. Republicans across the country are coming home.”

Like much that comes out of the Trump camp, Pence’s description of the polls is not entirely correct. When you average the polls on the Real Clear Politics website, Clinton is slightly ahead nationally but trailing in some of the battleground states.

READ: Mainstream Presidential Polls Fuel Illusion That Voters Are Stuck With Only Two Choices

Still, surveys show Republican enthusiasm is up—in the tradition of GOP behavior—as Election Day nears.

And there are indications that so-called independents—people not affiliated with a political party—may be moving into the Trump camp. Add to this the disaffected Democrats, particularly those in Midwestern industrial states. The forces that may be pushing them toward Trump have been part of life in the Antelope Valley for a long time.

I have been coming to the Antelope Valley for years since the mid 1960s, initially to cover political candidates campaigning among the prosperous machinists and other blue-collar workers employed by aerospace manufacturers and federal arms agencies. Remote from Los Angeles and its many racial tensions— and offering big, fairly inexpensive homes—the Antelope Valley became a middle-class, largely white enclave in a changing Southern California.

I returned in 2007 as the recession gripped the country. As the hard-time years continued, I interviewed men and women in homeless shelters and food banks, and encountered the phenomenon of one-time donors becoming recipients of surplus food and old clothing. I drove through streets of foreclosed homes and shuttered businesses and thought this must have been what it was like during the Great Depression.

Things began to improve in 2010. Businesses revived. New factories came to town. Hedge funds and banks bought the foreclosed homes and rented them, hoping for profitable sales in later years. But some renters were poor and working-class African-Americans from South Los Angeles. They were treated coldly by white residents—and brutally by sheriff’s deputies. Racial tension became part of life in the Antelope Valley.

The recession and its aftermath left the Antelope Valley traumatized— even in recovery—just like in other parts of the country.

That trauma—along with the hit-job letter from FBI chief Comey—may shape voting on Election Day. Those Republicans coming home to their party have chips on their shoulders, as do many other Trump supporters, including independents and Democrats. As awful as Trump is, that helps explain why Clinton is having so much trouble beating him.


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