US Elections 2016: Fight down to the wire

Republican Donald Trump has driven deep divisions between Americans, sparking a veritable civil war even within his own political party, but there is at least one Pennsylvania family the controversy-courting presidential candidate has united this year.

Mr Matt Carroll is a lifelong Republican, having voted for all of the party's presidential candidates since he first became eligible and cast his ballot for Mr George H.W. Bush. His wife, Beth, is a diehard Democrat.

"Now, for the first time in 20 years of marriage, we can talk politics in this house," said Mr Carroll, 46. "Trump has brought us together."

There is a twist though.

The sign on the white picket fence in front of their picture-perfect 19th-century home in Leetsdale, a leafy little borough 26km north of Pittsburgh, reveals that the couple will vote not for Mr Trump but for the Clinton/Kaine ticket.

Indeed, Mr Carroll represents the worst-case scenario for Mr Trump.

The swing state of Pennsylvania has not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Mr Carroll first voted in 1988, and its 20 electoral votes are crucial to any chance of the party winning back the White House next month.

Current polls show the New York billionaire's road here is as steep as some of the streets that wind round Allegheny County's hilly eastern banks along the Ohio River. One puts him as much as 12 percentage points behind Mrs Clinton.

Yet supporters still predict Pennsylvania will give Mr Trump the kind of populist victory carved out by Republican Ronald Reagan, who piled up 49 per cent of the state's votes in 1980 and more than 53 per cent in 1984.

To do that after Democrat Barack Obama won more than 54 per cent in Pennylvania in 2008 and 53 per cent in 2012, Mr Trump will need every Republican vote he can muster, and more, in the state's mountainous rural mid-section and big city suburbs such as Leetsdale.

Mr Carroll's vote will not be one of them. He admitted that he's "not a Hillary fan", but said "I'll take her over Trump".

"I'm a lifelong Republican and I hope he loses badly, so it never happens again," he said. "There are plenty of Republicans I would have voted for, but there's no way on this green earth that I would vote for him."

Mr Carroll, a mechanical engineer who spent two years growing up in Japan and six years as a teenager in Taiwan when his father worked there, and speaks some Mandarin, lists his reasons for opposing Mr Trump in no uncertain terms: "He's a meglomaniac. He always has been one from Day One, before reality TV, when he was probably a freshman in high school.

"I will definitely come out and vote against him. I'm looking forward to it, in a sadistic sort of way."

Mrs Carroll, 45, who is a stay-at-home mother to their 61/2-year-old adopted daughter, voted for Mr Bernie Sanders in the primary but now supports Mrs Clinton wholeheartedly.

"She's very well qualified, over 30 years of experience," she said. "And it's time for a woman to be our president."

Pittsburgh resident Pam Iovina, a former navy captain and assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs for the Department of Veteran Affairs in the administration of the last Republican president, Mr George W. Bush, expressed similar sentiments. She has joined a group of 15 prominent Pennsylvania Republicans who announced last month that they would vote for Mrs Clinton.

"Hillary will support and promote total force readiness by protecting women service members that have been victims of military sexual assault and harassment," she said. "She will strengthen protections, so women don't fear retaliation from reporting."

Pittsburgh on Pennsylvania's western edge, like Philadelphia 454km away on the east coast, is a traditional urban stronghold for the state's Democrats; both cities are home to large numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics.

As in other swing states, Mr Trump's tacticians in Pennsylvania are targeting disgruntled Americans living in the countryside, suburbs and small towns hit hard by the modern economic move away from manufacturing, coal mining and steel production into cleaner fields like natural gas production, medicine and high technology.

Ambridge, little more than 3km north of Leetsdale in Beaver County, is one of those towns. Once one of the steel powerhouses that built Pittsburgh, whose American football team is called the Steelers, the borough is still reeling from the closing of all three of its steel mills. Those factories fuelled the American Bridge Company, which gave the borough its name and builds bridges round the world, but left Ambridge in 1983.

Residents once earned big pay cheques and the population grew to more than 20,000 in the 1930s. Now fewer than 7,000 remain, according to the estimated 2015 census, and some 29 per cent of those live in poverty.

Earlier, the same day that Mr Carroll expressed his dislike for his party's nominee, nearby Ambridge bubbled back to life again with thousands staging a rousing welcome - for Mr Trump.

A queue outside the Ambridge Area High School stretched for half a kilometre last Monday.

People patiently waited to go through stiff security checks to get into the Wright Automotive Field House, home of the school's basketball team aptly known as the Bridgers, to hear him speak.

Women proudly wore T-shirts with the image of Cosette but with the title of the Les Miserables musical replaced with the words "Les Deplorables" - a reference to Mrs Clinton's depiction of some of Mr Trump's supporters. Men wore Vietnam veterans caps and carried signs that said "Steel City for Trump".

One man in line was Mr Russ Hall, 74, who was with his wife Sondra. A retired air force master sergeant, he served two tours in Vietnam, has a master's degree in Chinese history, taught high school history, and marched alongside African-Americans in civil rights protests in Mississippi in the 1960s. That would seem to make him the antithesis of the less educated blue-collar white men usually portrayed as Trump supporters.

"I trust him. He has nothing to gain. He's not a politician," said Mr Hall, echoing many other Pennsylvanians. "He's a billionaire. He's giving up a lot of money-making opportunities in order to save America from what the Democrats have done to it in the last 15 to 20 years. If we lose this election, America is finished."

About 2,000 people, almost all of them white, packed the field house and roared their approval when former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani introduced Mr Trump as the "next president of the United States". The usual chants of "Lock her up" followed as their candidate-of-choice launched into a long attack on Mrs Clinton.

Another 1,000 people watched his speech on a video screen in a field outside. Across the street, a handful of steel workers, including women wearing pink construction helmets, and others protested. "Love trumps hate," they chanted.

Ambridge was one of two corners of the state that Mr Trump reached out to on Monday, right after the second presidential debate, not pausing for a breather. The other was a former coal-mining hub, Wilkes-Barre, some 500km across the Pocono and Endless Mountains to the north-east.

The city is the seat of Luzerne County, which has more Democrats, but state voter data showed more new Republicans than Democrats registered this year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer website.

The Trump campaign expects to do well in Wilkes-Barre, as in the Ambridge area, because factories have closed and the presence of Latino immigrants has caused tensions, The New York Times reported, noting that thousands of equally enthusiastic Pennsylvanians turned out for Mr Trump.

Such large crowds showing up despite the release of the tape in which Mr Trump made crude remarks about women in 2005 appear to undercut the belief that he has little chance of winning Pennsylvania.

This article was first published on Oct 17, 2016.
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