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How A Divided Upstate New York Views Trump Amid His Sliding Approval Ratings

Democrat George DeTitta, in a restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., says he has been watching the Trump White House with alarm.
Don Gonyea
Democrat George DeTitta, in a restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., says he has been watching the Trump White House with alarm.

George DeTitta, a retired biomedical researcher, is no fan of President Trump's.

"Well, the day he got inaugurated, I put on my Facebook page, 'Not my president,' " the 69-year-old Democrat says, sitting at a table near the window at a restaurant in downtown Buffalo.

DeTitta says he took the post down the next day, but he's been watching the Trump White House with alarm ever since. Even something Democrats felt relief about — the failure of the president and fractured House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act — wasn't reason for DeTitta to celebrate.

"This didn't go down because the good folks won; it went down because people who want to absolutely gut health care in this country won. They won, not the people," DeTitta says. "The Tea Party won."

Here on the far western edge of New York state, residents are as starkly divided as the rest of the country. Buffalo, the largest city in the area, is a Democratic stronghold — enough so that Erie County went for Hillary Clinton last November. Get out to the suburbs and neighboring counties, and you very quickly arrive in Trump country.

The region also reflects broader attitudes toward Trump, whose approval ratings are at a record low for any president, especially one still in the first 100 days of an administration. In surveys, Democrats, like DeTitta, are overwhelmingly opposed to the president's policies and give him low scores on the job he's doing. Independent voters are also unhappy. Even some Republicans are starting to have doubts.

Sixty-two-year-old truck driver Scott Spencer, though, is a big Trump supporter. In the Woodlawn Diner in Blasdell, he sits at the far end of the counter with a plate of eggs and toast.

The diner is a sleepy place, even during the morning rush. It's located on a road that was once home to tens of thousands of steel jobs. Now there's a long stretch of abandoned steel mills. One hulking structure still stands, despite a massive fire that broke out the morning after the election in November.

Spencer says he's been fed up with both political parties for years, but then Trump came along, "and now he's the first guy I feel like I can really stand behind." He likes Trump's boldness and determination to shake up Washington: "Trump is saying ... 'I want to do things this way.' " And he very much approves of Trump's way.

Spencer is part of that surge of white, working-class voters who went for Trump here and in key battleground states. Drive a bit farther out in the Buffalo suburbs, and a lot of mainstream Republicans are also still on board with Trump, even as the president continues to make more news for his Twitter feed and the fights he picks with critics than he does for progress on his agenda.

Brian Rusk is a good example. He's as "establishment" as they come. A longtime activist in New York Republican politics, the 61-year-old can point to framed autographed photos of himself as a younger man with President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and Reagan-era Secretary of State Al Haig. Early on in 2016, Rusk was a supporter of one of the most moderate GOP presidential hopefuls, former New York Gov. George Pataki. Pataki dropped out, so he switched to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. When Bush dropped out, Rusk got on board with Trump. He says he did so enthusiastically, feeling like this was a winner.

Now, with the Trump White House plagued by missteps and investigations, Rusk says, "Give him time," stressing that Trump has only been in office just over 70 days. As for Trump's failure to quickly "repeal and replace Obamacare" as promised, Rusk says the blame is on the GOP "radical right," not on Trump. He says it's still early, so there's no need to fret. "I mean, it's a process; it's like making sausage."

Rusk does offer a piece of advice to the president. He says Trump needs to reach out to conservative Democrats. But so far, Democrats have been wary of trusting Trump, even on issues where they might want to cut a deal, including the massive investments in infrastructure the president wants.

Plus, Trump makes that task more difficult by continuing to attack and even mock Democrats on Twitter and at the big campaign-style rallies (rallies where the hard-core Trump faithful will still break into a spirited "Lock her up" chant when Trump mentions Hillary Clinton).

GOP activist Brett Sommer, meanwhile, is starting to have his doubts about the president. The 51-year-old, who teaches history at a suburban high school, didn't vote for Trump. He cast his ballot for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Sommer got on board with Trump after the election, though, because he was happy to have Republican control of the White House and the Congress for the first time in a decade.

"Some of the policy that he talks about I can support," Sommer explains, including tax overhaul and easing regulations. But he's increasingly troubled that Trump doesn't appear interested in doing what's needed to build support for a coherent agenda. He's also offended by Trump's tweeting and the constant drama.

Sommer is frustrated. "I think the rally is what he enjoys," he says, adding, "I don't think he really enjoys the governing and the managing."

Asked if the president should stop holding the big rallies, Sommer replies: "I think he should focus on the governance of this country."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.