ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When Joan Martin heard that Joe Biden had been declared the winner of the presidential election, the retired nurse and avowed supporter of President Donald Trump was deeply unsettled. To steel herself, she thought about how her household weathered Hurricane Katrina when it battered her hometown of Picayune, Mississippi, in 2005.
As the storm blew toward the town, Martin rushed out into her yard to carry her 85 show chickens to safety. Outside, howling winds lashed her family’s barn, lifting the edges of the roof off its moorings.
“The next day they (the chickens) were very concerned about the changes in the yard — we had trees down,” said Martin, 79. “They were very eyes-wide. But within two days, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we can deal with this,’ and they did. So I have to follow their lead.”
Across the country, many of the 71.9 million people who voted for Trump — especially his loyal, passionate base — are working through turbulent emotions in the wake of his loss. Grief, anger and shock are among the feelings expressed by supporters who assumed he would score a rock-solid victory — by a slim margin, maybe easily, perhaps even by a landslide.
There is also denial. Many are skeptical of the results, saying they don't trust the media's race call for Biden, the way election officials counted the ballots, the entire voting system in America. Their views echo the unsupported claims Trump has made since Election Day.
This despite the fact that state officials and election experts say the 2020 election unfolded smoothly across the country and without widespread irregularities. Trump and other Republicans have pointed to isolated problems, but many are explained by human error. Many of the Trump campaign's legal challenges have been dismissed in court. And with Biden leading Trump by solid margins in key battleground states, none of those issues would have any impact on the outcome of the election.
Still, any fragment of possibility is enough for some Trump supporters to reject reality, feel aggrieved and rebuff Biden's calls for unity. Their comments lay out the political challenge ahead for the president-elect: The longer Trump casts doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s win, the harder it will be for the new president to unite a riven country, as he has said he wants to do.
“I’m really not in a live and let live mood," said Daniel Echebarria, a 39-year-old school teacher who lives in Sparks, Nevada.
Echebarria said he was surprised by the election results, questioned some of the numbers and would like to see the president continue with his legal challenges. But he also said he doesn’t consider the result “a big rig job” and doesn’t want to see Trump deny the results into January. Still, he's not feeling particularly united, either.
Echebarria said he believes Democrats never gave Trump a chance to govern and cites the Russia investigation and the impeachment trial as examples.
“I think that the president was prohibited from getting a lot of his agenda done because so much time and effort had to be put against defending against these," he said.
Several Trump supporters interviewed by The Associated Press in recent days were rankled by widespread celebrations of Biden's win in liberal cities. They saw hypocrisy in the public, outdoor gatherings after Democrats condemned Trump supporters for attending big rallies — some were held indoors — during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sad” is how Lori Piotrowski sums up her mood. The president of the Boulder City Republican Women club in Nevada at first sounds much like any other deflated supporter.
“You always want your candidate to win. You’re a little let down. You worked hard," she said.
But Piotrowski also described herself as “extremely” surprised by the result of the election. She's struggling to reconcile her version of the campaign with the results. She says she saw so many images of large Trump rallies in the final days. On a recent drive from Las Vegas to Reno — through rural, GOP-leaning Nevada — she saw only Trump signs and banners, she said.
“The votes didn’t reflect that amount of enthusiasm. I just find that very surprising,” she said. ”It makes me wonder.”
Biden won Nevada by racking up votes in the state’s urban areas.
Piotrowski, like many Trump supporters, wants to see Trump’s legal challenges continue. A massive surge in mail voting and the slower tally of those votes made the vote count look unfamiliar and strange. Piotrowski said it concerns her that races were called with so many ballots outstanding, although that is often the case.
“It just seems to me that there’s a lot of things that can be improved in the system so that people felt more confident,” she said.
She said she hasn’t listened to any of Biden’s speeches since Election Day.
Za Awng, of Aurora, Colorado, is also suspicious of the vote count.
Awng, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Myanmar, has embraced Trump as a politician who echoes his conviction that China’s influence in the world must be sharply curtailed, and as one who Awng says shares his Christian values.
This spring, Awng lost his job as a chef for two months when the pandemic forced the closure of the restaurant where he works. Back at work now, he credits Trump with working hard over the last four years to improve the economy. It was hard for him to grasp how the president could lose.
“I believe there is something wrong," he said, pointing to what appear to be Democratic shifts in the tally but were a result of mail-in votes being counted later. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to cast mail-in ballots after Trump baselessly declared mail voting fraudulent.
“I hope there will be counting again and maybe it will change,” he said.
Even in less tense times, Jim Czebiniak seeks solace in hours of evening prayer. So when Czebiniak, an avid Trump supporter who lives in the upstate community of Knox, New York, heard that Biden had been declared the winner, he turned once again to worship in a search for answers.
“First of all, I went to the Lord and I asked him why, why is it going like this? The Lord said, ‘Because I’m working on stuff. Just relax and let things work themselves out,'" said Czebiniak, 72, who is semi-retired from a career writing custom software.
“To quote what’s-his-name from the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger: ’You can’t always get what you want,'” Czebiniak said.
Still, Czebiniak said he is far from ready to accept a Biden presidency. He cited several unsupported claims made by the Trump campaign.
“The election isn’t really called yet,” Czebiniak said, days after all the major U.S. television networks and the AP examined vote counts in key states to declare Biden the overall winner. “I don’t trust anything that’s going on there with all this vote counting."
Unlike many Trump supporters, Michelle Sassouni wasn't shocked by the outcome of the election or the aftermath.
The 29-year-old in Tampa, Florida, is an active member of her region's Young Republicans Club and a co-host of a video show, “Moderately Outraged.” She floated the idea of Biden's nomination, and potential to win, months ago.
“Everyone laughed at me on the show,” she said. With many liberal friends, she had seen the strong opposition to Trump. She even understands it somewhat. “I don’t love everything he does, but I voted for him because I’m a Republican.”
But Sassouni doesn't see danger in Trump's vow to fight the results in court. People need to be reassured of the results, and a court fight might give them confidence, she said.
“If you voted for Joe Biden, wouldn’t you want to know that he won fair and square so that there's not this cloud over his head?” she asked. “If half the country believes there was some sort of election tampering, then that creates distrust in the system, that creates distrust in Western democracy as a whole.”
Martin, the retiree in Mississippi, says she's planning to resume her daily life, tending to her animals and avoiding talking about the country’s change in leadership as a way to deal with the stress and trepidation she feels.
“I’ll go out in the yard to check and talk to my chickens and say my old-fashioned hymns and get by,” she said.
Geller reported from New York and Price reported from Las Vegas.