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Divided by the grade: SLO County rejected Trump, but by precinct the election results tell a different story 

Looking at where the citizens of SLO County stood in the 2016 presidential election, one takeaway is clear: Most were turned off by President-elect Donald J. Trump.

With 3,153 votes still to count countywide, Trump garnered 40.9 percent of the SLO County vote. Hillary Clinton won the county by more than 8 percentage points, receiving 49 percent of the vote. Gary Johnson got 4.7 percent of the vote, while Jill Stein received 2 percent. 

click to enlarge RED NORTH:  Source: Final unofficial election night results, SLO County Office of the Clerk-recorder. - GRAPHIC BY LENI LITONJUA
  • GRAPHIC BY LENI LITONJUA
  • RED NORTH: Source: Final unofficial election night results, SLO County Office of the Clerk-recorder.

Clinton’s victory is not necessarily because SLO County is a big liberal bubble: Its residents voted red in two of the last four presidential elections. George W. Bush won SLO County in 2000 by a bigger margin than Clinton just did, 52 percent to Al Gore’s 40.8 percent. In 2004, Bush again handily beat John Kerry, 52.5 percent to 45.3 percent.

Yet in 2016, for the first time in at least 16 years, the Republican Party nominee failed to get at least 45 percent of the SLO County electorate. 

It’s a phenomenon that Al Fonzi, the chairman of the Republican Party of SLO County, mostly blames on Trump.

“Trump did not make it easy to support him,” Fonzi told New Times in a phone interview. “Every time he got on that Tweet thing [Twitter], I wish he’d just shut his mouth and run. He’s obnoxious, he’s rude, and he’s a boor.”

That feeling was shared by many locals engrained in Republican politics, who were disillusioned when Trump emerged as the victor from the primaries, Fonzi said. But as traditional Republicans sulked, a swell of grassroots support for Trump emerged. Fonzi said Trump galvanized a new group of people in the county who began showing up to local Republican offices.

“There were a lot of people walking off the street who just wanted to participate because they liked Trump. They weren’t Republican Party regulars,” Fonzi said. “We had people driving from Nipomo to the Atascadero [Republican headquarters] to get Trump stuff. Then we had bidding wars over different items.”

Similarly to what seemed to occur across the nation, Trump supporters’ unforeseen enthusiasm helped motivate Fonzi and others in the establishment to hop on board.

“It was an all-hands effort by the fall, but the initial support came largely from people who would normally be stand-offish and keep politics at arms length,” he said.

Don Stewart, chairman of the Democratic Party of SLO County, told New Times he’s also seeing more locals move away from the establishment parties. And while Trump appeared to galvanize some of those residents, the results indicate that more sided with Clinton.

“SLO County voted again to support a Democrat. I think that’s huge considering its makeup,” Stewart said.

North vs. South

Though Clinton won SLO County as a whole, her support varied greatly by location. The Cuesta Grade proved to be a defining boundary between liberal-leaning South County and conservative-leaning North County.

According to preliminary precinct-by-precinct election data, the majority of voters in the North County communities of San Miguel (60 percent), Paso Robles (56 percent), Templeton (52 percent), Creston (65 percent), and Shandon (61 percent) picked Trump over Clinton. 

That stood in great contrast to Trump’s unpopularity south of the grade, in the city of San Luis Obispo (23 percent) and the coastal communities of Los Osos (28 percent), Morro Bay (36 percent), Cayucos (39 percent), and Cambria/San Simeon (31 percent).

Trump was also unpopular in Avila Beach (35 percent), Grover Beach (41 percent), and Oceano (38 percent). The contest was slightly closer in Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande (45 percent), and even closer in Atascadero and Santa Margarita (47 percent), and southern rural Nipomo (49 percent).

Stewart noted that the Democratic Party opened a satellite office in Paso Robles this year in an attempt to expand its presence, but that it’s always been harder to gain ground in North County.

Fonzi chalked up the geographic split to different lifestyles and political orientations in North County vs. South County.

“You go back to what Paso Robles was 30 years ago, it’s where cowboys hung out,” Fonzi said. “There’s a very rural type of lifestyle, laid back, leave us alone kind of thing—a lot of farmers and ranchers.”

Conservative local media was another important influence on the North County electorate, according to Fonzi, especially conservative talk radio station KPRL.

“[KPRL] has a giant impact on public opinion up here,” Fonzi said. “They were just hammering liberal causes and liberal candidates. They were more intense than normal.”

Those causes ranged from the Affordable Care Act to local ballot measures like Measure J, the proposed half-percent sales tax increase for road projects, which needed a two-thirds majority vote is narrowly failing.

“Any political figure who even hinted at supporting Measure J was being shredded by these guys [at KPRL] continually,” Fonzi said.

When looking at the opposition to Measure J by geography, it appears that the counter message resonated with North County listeners. Measure J received considerably less than two-thirds support in San Miguel, Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Santa Margarita, Shandon, and Creston.

All in all, SLO County voter turnout broke records in 2016. More than 137,173 residents voted this year—the most ballots ever cast in the county. Of 168,257 registered voters (the highest registration number ever), more than 81 percent voted.

In 2008—the election that broke records for voter turnout nationally—SLO County registered 161,256 voters and 134,061 (83 percent) actually voted. Fifty-one percent chose Obama and 46 percent picked John McCain.

When Mitt Romney challenged Obama’s re-election bid in 2012, SLO County narrowly chose Obama again, 48.6 percent to Romney’s 47.6 percent. That year, only 158,603 residents registered and 126,818 voted (80 percent). 

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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