Reporter’s notebook: faced with candidates they don’t trust, some US students find it hard to pick a side

Diary entries by SCMP reporters covering the US White House race, offering personal observations on behind-the-scenes activities on the campaign trail

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 11:37am

Margaret Nelson will not disclose who she will be voting for on November 8, but the political science undergraduate student at Queen’s University in Charlotte has a good reason for keeping mum.

As a non-partisan election engagement fellow on campus, she has the formidable task of persuading her schoolmates to cast their ballots in an election characterised by low trust levels for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“I understand the frustration,” Nelson, 21, told me on the university’s North Carolina campus. “In their minds neither of the candidates represents them.”

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With just a week to go until the presidential election, she continues to try to persuade people unconvinced by the candidates to vote.

“I show them a list of issues and ask them, which side are you on?” she said. “And then I show them which candidate is on which side of the issues.”

The issues, she tells her fellow students, matter more than the faces.

In addition, the president is not the only office on the ticket for North Carolina on November 8. Also on the ballot are the federal senator, state governor, state judges and other lower-level jobs.

“These matter just as much to local life,” Nelson said.

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But not all students on the small campus full of red brick buildings found it so easy to identify themselves with either of the candidates. While Clinton continues to be plagued by her email scandal, Trump has scared a lot of youngsters with his anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric – and his “locker room talk”.

“I don’t think either of them is good,” Rebecca Carlo, a first-year sociology student, said.

One problem arising from Clinton’s lack of appeal to millennial voters is best encapsulated by Carlo’s case. Born and raised near the laid-back Elizabeth City, Carlo grew up hearing stories about the nearby military bases, knowing nothing about Clinton’s overseas accomplishments as Secretary of State.

She initially found third-party candidates, like Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, more attractive, but admitted that a vote for him “would increase the chance of a Trump presidency”.

And given that scenario, she had only one vote possible, she said.

“After all, politics is not just about idealism, but also realism.”