Eight days after the 2016 general election, we left for a visit to the South. Our primary destination was the Florida Panhandle with its white-sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
For two full weeks, from airline flights to sunset-watching, I turned part of this trip into an unofficial research project. The simple idea: Talk to a broad variety of strangers (and a few acquaintances) from different parts of the country, to see how they reacted to the presidential outcome.
Something told me that the responses might differ from what I'd been hearing in Colorado. Of course, Hillary Clinton did carry this state by 47-44 percent, a margin of nearly 75,000 votes over Donald Trump. Clearly, Colorado was in the minority, but for us, this election didn't feel that unusual. Here in El Paso County, the Republicans fared very well, Democrats won only two state House races and Clinton's total of 108,000 votes (34 percent) was fairly close to Barack Obama's 111,000 locally in 2012.
For Coloradans, the only way to gauge the national mood has been TV news coverage that now focuses far more on Trump's transition than on normal people's reactions.
Go to the South, even en route, and you hear what apparently is much closer to the real emotion across America. In all honesty, I never told anyone I was in the media (probably for the best). These weren't interviews; they were conversations with people from their 20s to their 70s, usually not even sharing names, just where we live. That way, what people said was more candid and unguarded.
Another point worth making: These folks weren't just Florida residents; many were on vacations themselves from places like Tennessee, North Carolina and other states. But their feelings were remarkably consistent.
Nearly everyone I encountered freely admitted voting for Trump, and a lot had voted for Obama. What surprised me was that these people, with few exceptions, actually weren't excited about Trump being the next president.
The most common sentiment, even from many reasonable people? They were relieved, visibly relieved, that Clinton lost. To them, Trump was worth the gamble as long as Clinton didn't win. When I asked what swayed them the most, most completely believed Clinton was corrupt and even guilty of criminal wrongdoing. Some were convinced by FBI Director James Comey's controversial late appearance regarding the email investigation. Some went back to Clinton's handling of Benghazi. Some felt the Clinton Foundation's activities were worse than reported. And some mentioned her comment about Trump supporters being a "basket of deplorables."
[pullquote-1] In certain situations, I gently tried to ask how people felt about Trump's own confirmed mistruths, his treatment of women, Muslims and minorities (remember the Mexican-American judge in Ohio?), his refusal to share tax returns, and/or his incendiary rhetoric and bullying tactics.
Again, it just didn't matter. Many of these well-educated people had bought into the "fake news" along the way, including fabrications about Clinton's health and emails. Many could see Trump's character flaws yet had no trouble dismissing them as irrelevant. But they weren't brainwashed.
Several who clearly had no interest in Trump still wouldn't vote for Clinton, instead choosing Gary Johnson (Libertarian) or, in one case, Jill Stein (Green). If not voting for Clinton helped Trump, so be it.
There's one subplot: A few discussions turned to marijuana, with Florida among the states that just approved medical marijuana, so many Trump voters also had no problem with legalizing medical weed. In each case, I mentioned being from Colorado, producing some of the best exchanges, because it's so obvious residents of other states can't grasp what it's like here.
If I had told any of them a lie, that we have stoners stumbling around everywhere in public, they certainly would have believed it. Instead, I just mentioned how everyday life feels no different after two years of full legalization — and many didn't seem to believe that, either.
Then again, that's part of the problem. Nobody knows what to believe anymore, and they've been told by their president-elect not to believe the media.
The conclusion? Clinton's campaign misread many elements of the electorate. Her strategy might have prevailed here and especially on the two coasts, but millions in the rest of America wanted her to lose, no matter what. And no, it wouldn't have mattered if Bernie Sanders had been her running mate.
They simply despise her, enough that no matter what Trump does, they won't regret anything. They'll just deal with it, along with the rest of us.