On the campaign trail in Iowa, Republican Donald Trump bragged that his supporters were so loyal that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
After more than 200 days in the White House and blistering criticism from both political parties over his response to the violence in Charlottesville, national polls show Trump has lost some voters. But his core people — those who turn out for rallies and live in conservative enclaves like this southern Ohio county in the heart of Trump country — show few signs of buyer’s remorse.
Last Tuesday, a day when liberal Bernie Sanders blasted Trump from a podium at nearby Shawnee Community College, resident after resident in Portsmouth, the seat of Scioto County, gave the president high marks for his performance in office.
“He is trying to work on Obamacare,” said Richard Throckmorton, 73, a retired carpenter from Lucasville who said he sells vegetables at the Portsmouth farmer’s market to bring in extra money to pay health care expenses not covered by Medicare. “This has really affected us financially.”
Patricia Aleeyah Robinson, a 63-year-old retired truck driver from Toledo and an African-American, said she admires Trump’s refusal to sugarcoat his beliefs and believes the controversy over his response to Charlottesville is being driven by those seeking to disrupt his agenda.
“He has done nothing to turn me away from him,” she said.
Trump won 80 of Ohio’s 88 counties in November and even picked up traditionally blue Montgomery County, though by a slim margin. Where he cleaned up was in rural Ohio, pulling nearly 80 percent of the vote in Mercer County, and more than 70 percent in 20 other counties. He won Scioto County by roughly 36 percentage points.
John Leasure, a Trump voter in Portsmouth, said the president’s message resonates in southern Ohio.
“Don’t discount the term ‘lost person.’ Like in this area, working class and lower middle class people, they felt shunned by both parties,” he said. “This area has been on the decline economically since the 1970s.”
Overwhelming rural support — and a better-than-expected showing in some urban counties — allowed Trump to take Ohio last November by more than 8 percentage points, a stunning margin in a state that twice went for Democrat Barack Obama. Even in the Ohio Republican primary, which was won by Gov. John Kasich, Trump prevailed in nearly all southern and eastern counties, a dominance that stretched from Ashtabula County on the far eastern edge to Clermont County just outside of Cincinnati.
Even many supporters, however, admit his presidency so far has been rocky, and in the first seven months his administration has careened from one controversy to the next: constant bickering with the media, clashes with allies such as Mexico and Australia, high-profile firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, litigation over a ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, a high profile investigation into ties between his campaign and associates and Russia, failure to repeal Obamacare and escalating rhetoric against North Korea.
And that list doesn’t even include the rally at Charlottesville, after which the president seemed to put white supremacists on the same moral ground as the counterprotest groups that included a 32-year-old woman who was killed when a man drove his car at high speed into the crowd.
Both Republicans and Democrats pounced on Trump’s statements, with Sen. Bob Corker even questioning his competence. The president, the Tennessee Republican said, “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
‘He needs some public relations’
But even as Trump “seems to be stumbling through,” as small businessman James Osborne put it, people in this job-starved area say they are giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Osborne, 46, a Church of Christ minister in West Portsmouth, credits Trump for gains in the stock market, a low unemployment rate and other positive economic results.
“He went in having bucked the establishment on both sides so there was nobody to pick him up and help carry him through (the early days,)” Osborne said, adding, “I do wish he wouldn’t be quite as combative.”
That seemed to be a theme: like the messenger, hate the way his messages are being delivered.
“He needs some public relations,” said Amy Baise, a registered nurse in Portsmouth who lives in Chesapeake. “His image — he puts people off. And the tweeting thing — he needs to get away from that. The president of the United States doesn’t need to be tweeting.”
Related: 5 reasons Donald Trump won Ohio
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday shows nearly 7 in 10 American voters want Trump to stop tweeting from his personal account.
“I think he thinks he knows all the answers and he doesn’t need to listen to the people,” said Kayla Parker, 29, a hospital technician from Wheelersburg, W.Va., who attended the Sanders rally. And, she added, “Log out of Twitter. Permanently.”
In the Quinnipiac poll, which appeared to mirror other voter surveys, Trump received low marks for his overall job approval (35 percent approve compared to 59 percent who disapprove), his response to the events in Charlottesville (32 percent approve compared to 60 percent who disapprove), and his ability to unite the country (31 percent say he is uniting the country compared to 62 percent who say he is doing more to divide it).
Among Republicans, though, Trump fares much better: 77 percent of the Republican respondents said they approve of how he is handling the presidency.
Although recent Ohio polling numbers on Trump’s popularity are unavailable, an NBC News/Marist poll in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin from last week may give Ohio Republicans some pause: The results from the three Midwestern swing states were similar to the national polls.
“Trump’s approval ratings have declined pretty steadily since his inauguration. That is not unprecedented and it is still too early to read too much into these trends,” said Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith. But, he added: Trump’s base of support, while solid, is not large enough to provide political cover in times of turmoil.
“Current events, like Charlottesville or North Korea, contribute to the feel of chaos and instability around the presidency,” Smith said. “Whether it is actually chaotic and unstable is really unknown, but the president’s own behavior and his handling of events suggests things are spinning around him.”
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” said Trump will probably hold onto his popularity longer in Ohio than in some other states.
Ohio runs below the national average for the percentage of its population that is college-educated — a trend line that favored Trump in last year’s election — and issues like focusing on immigration and cutting government regulations play well here.
But not everything he says is met with approval — even in a county like this one, which he won handily.
Alicia Kight, a nurse from Portsmouth, said she appreciates that Trump supports religious expression in school and wants to crack down on illegal immigration.
“It’s nice that he wants to bring back God and Merry Christmas,” she said. “We were founded on that.”
But like others here, Kight said the president needs to find a balance between speaking his mind and putting people off.
“He needs a filter,” she said. “He has no filter.”
Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.