Some couples, friends and relatives in Washington say the presidential campaign season has tangled intimate relationships unlike any before.

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For best buds Ernie Lou and Tod Steward, the 2016 presidential election is taking a toll. At a Seattle bar one recent afternoon, Steward boldly sported a “Make America Great Again” Donald Trump hat. Lou wore Hillary Clinton gear.

Both tried and failed to persuade the other to switch sides.

“It’s really gotten bad,” Steward said. The two Seattle men, like many across Washington, are looking forward to the end of the campaign season to calm their lives of volatile arguments with loved ones and friends.

Over roughly a month, The Seattle Times fielded dozens of emails, phone calls and responses on social media from people across the political spectrum who say the election has tangled their personal relationships. Some of them call the polarization unlike anything they have experienced before.

“If you’re going to say ‘crooked Hillary’ again, I’m going to defriend you on Facebook,” Lou, 57, recalled of the most heated fight between them. Steward, 52, says Trump is the best pick, largely because he “isn’t a politician.” Lou believes Clinton is way more qualified.

Ernie Lou, left, and Tod Steward are friends who support opposing candidates in the presidential election. “Regardless of our views,” Lou said, “we both are passionate about our country, and I think we’re both passionate about our beliefs.” (Katie G. Cotterill/The Seattle Times)
Ernie Lou, left, and Tod Steward are friends who support opposing candidates in the presidential election. “Regardless of our views,” Lou said, “we both are passionate about our country, and I think we’re both passionate about our beliefs.” (Katie G. Cotterill/The Seattle Times)
Tod Steward, left, and Ernie Lou get into a heated discussion about Donald Trump, whom Steward supports, and Hillary Clinton, whom Lou supports, while tailgating before a recent Huskies game.  (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)
Tod Steward, left, and Ernie Lou get into a heated discussion about Donald Trump, whom Steward supports, and Hillary Clinton, whom Lou supports, while tailgating before a recent Huskies game. (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

One Whidbey Island woman said she cannot discuss politics with her husband of more than a decade without the talks turning nasty.

“I hate election season because of this,” she said. The two sometimes joke about their votes canceling each other out, the woman said.

Another woman said she and her fiancé have a hard time getting through dinnertime without fighting.

According to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, voters in the two major parties are now further apart from each other than at any point over the last quarter-century.

For John Simpson and his mother, Phyllis Hanen, clashes over the presidential election began in early August. The 31-year-old son had just returned from a long trip in India, and was living in her Edmonds home, when they first confronted the question: Who will get your vote?

“It’s not who you want,” Hanen, 66, a Donald Trump supporter, told Simpson. The two stayed away from the topic while the son was away, then they “got into a huge fight,” Simpson recalled of the conversation. “Which is terrible because I just got home, and I wanted to enjoy time with my mom.”

This campaign season has been hard on John Simpson, who backs Hillary Clinton, and his mother, Phyllis Hanen, who backs Donald Trump.  (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
This campaign season has been hard on John Simpson, who backs Hillary Clinton, and his mother, Phyllis Hanen, who backs Donald Trump. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Arguments, in-person and online

Feeling left behind in the nation’s economy, some Trump supporters connect with the candidate’s messages to challenge China or change trade deals. Others have latched onto his proposals for dealing with illegal immigration and terrorism. Hanen, a real-estate agent, says Trump would be a needed change from the past eight years under President Obama.

“Liberals want to take care of everything — they want to take care of the rest of the world,” she said. “I think that’s a noble idea, but they don’t understand who has been paying into this system.”

For Simpson, who supported Bernie Sanders early in the election, the Republican presidential nominee is a “figurehead” for xenophobic and racist ideas. He says Trump has created a platform for discrimination against minorities, specifically with his views on immigration.

“I can’t stand … even being around a Trump supporter,” Simpson said. “When that person is your mother, what do you do?”

Some respondents to The Seattle Times said they have stopped associating with friends and relatives who support different candidates. Others said they have gone on social-media diets to avoid the debate. Many just said they are disappointed in both Clinton and Trump, and they share that feeling with those around them.

The Whidbey Island woman, who describes herself as Democrat/Libertarian, said she’s already thinking about how things will be at home after Nov. 8. Her husband didn’t agree to allow his name in this story, so the newspaper left their names out.

If Clinton wins, she said her Republican husband will vent for four more years. But if Trump wins, “at least it would be all rosy talk around my house,” she said in an email. “Do I vote my conscience or for my sanity?” she wrote.

For Lou and Steward, who have been friends for roughly a decade, their arguments reached a milestone this summer when Lou presented the Facebook ultimatum. The two routinely meet up for drinks at the gay bar R Place in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and go to sports games together, though recently the hangouts have sometimes been tense.

With the election, the friends say their top goals for the country align. They want more jobs, a stronger economy, “equality for all” and to fight terrorism. Because they are gay, issues facing the LGBTQ community are high social priorities. And for Steward, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that restricts joint movement, disability rights remain important. Lou stands with him on that, too.

“It’s kind of ironic, right?” Steward said of his support for Trump, considering an incident in which the Republican nominee mocked a reporter with the same disability as his own. When you look at the overall picture, he said, Trump is the best choice.

Lou, meanwhile, said he would drive across the country to help Clinton — the first woman to lead a major American political party — campaign in swing states, if necessary. A part-time Uber driver and small-business owner, he has volunteered for local campaigns, such as Mayor Ed Murray’s, in the past. And he supported Clinton‘s previous presidential campaign.

“I think we live in the best country in the world, and I’m really proud that we elected an African American in 2008,” he said. “Regardless of our views,” referring to Steward, “we both are passionate about our country, and I think we’re both passionate about our beliefs.”

Division grows, tension rises

Mark Smith, who teaches political science at the University of Washington, said the current political climate is more polarized than at any other point in years. That division can lead to strain on marriages and other intimate relationships, he said.

The Pew study says the two major parties look less alike than at any point since 1992. Smith expects the division to continue and, potentially, to grow, considering how people today consume information on politics.

“It is increasingly easy to isolate yourself from other points of view,” he said of the variety of news. “If you really want to make sure that you really don’t have any news from other sides of the aisle, you can make that happen.”

In an August survey by independent pollster Stuart Elway, Clinton had 43 percent of the support in Washington compared to Trump’s 24 percent.

Steward said he has never experienced such tension in an election. In Seattle, he said the hatred toward Trump is strong. While walking around the city sporting the red campaign hat, for example, he draws snarls and dirty looks, and sometimes feels threatened. Just on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported a Minnesota college student reported being verbally assaulted while wearing the same hat.

“They’re not going to hit a handicapped person,” Steward said, laughing. “People, who aren’t Trump supporters, I’ve never seen it, they hate Trump, and they can’t even see” past that.

While campaigning, the celebrity businessman has painted Clinton as untrustworthy and prone to scandals. The former secretary of state has depicted Trump as erratic and a liability for the country. Both have made Washington state visits while campaigning, including pricey fundraisers with high-profile, local donors.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson made a local stop, too.

Like Steward, Hanen said her conservative views fall into the minority in the suburb north of Seattle. In the living room of the Edmonds condo which she shares with her husband, the mother and son one recent afternoon confronted their differences. They agreed their different experiences have shaped their views.

“What he has grown up and observed has been drastically different with what I have grown up with,” the mother said.

A student of international studies, among other topics, the son temporarily stayed in the home after his 11-month trip in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) before moving near the university for graduate classes in September. During his time in the suburb, though, he briefly moved in with a friend in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, in part to escape Trump discussions.

To some of Hanen’s remarks, specifically on the issue of transgender bathrooms, Simpson was speechless. To her comment on Obama’s impact on the nation’s debt, he fought back. At one point, while passionately recalling his frustration after turning on the television to find Fox News as the last channel played, the son paused, saying:

“At the same time, I’m very lucky to stay here — it’s a beautiful place — I don’t want to wear out my welcome. It’s home.”

“Well, you can never wear out your welcome,” Hanen responded, as if to remind him they’re family.

Phyllis Hanen, of Edmonds, and John Simpson, her son, clash when it comes to politics. Simpson, a student who has focused on international studies, supports Hillary Clinton. Hanen supports Donald Trump.  (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Phyllis Hanen, of Edmonds, and John Simpson, her son, clash when it comes to politics. Simpson, a student who has focused on international studies, supports Hillary Clinton. Hanen supports Donald Trump. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Is the presidential election straining your relationships? Please contact reporter Jessica Lee at jlee@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2532 to share your story.