In the near-freezing cold on Tuesday night, Britni McCuiston and Joseph Santomassino walked out of Henry J. McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester, New Hampshire, holding hands. They had each just cast their votes in the state’s first-in-the-nation primary: her, for Bernie Sanders; him, for Donald Trump.
“Still came together,” Santomassino said. “Still came together, still gonna leave together,” McCuiston added.
McCuiston, 27, and Santomassino, 26, have been dating for two years. They met when he, a Manchester native, was temporarily living in her home state of Tennessee. “Next thing I know, I live here,” she joked.
At one point, the couple was more closely aligned on politics. Both worked for the Sanders campaign during the Vermont senator’s 2016 bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee, but only McCuiston actually cast a vote for Sanders. Santomassino showed up at his polling place in 2016 intending to vote for Sanders in the Democratic Primary, but was instead handed a Republican Primary ballot—a relic of his registration during the 2012 election. Santomassino cast a vote that day for Donald Trump. It would be his first of three over the next few years.
“I just don’t like Trump. I don’t like him as a person,” said McCuiston, with as much conviction as her boyfriend showed in his support of the 45th president. “It’s just a character thing. That’s what it really boils down to. Some of his policies are great, I’ll give him that, but I just don’t like him as a person.”
To Santomassino, Trump’s character stands apart from his record. “I think, separate the art from the artist,” he said. “There have been terrible things that our leaders have done throughout the past. Doesn’t matter who it is, what nation, what history.” In Santomassino’s mind, “their character doesn’t show up on the documents they write and the policies that they bring.”
Santomassino describes himself as a Republican or a Libertarian, but “primarily a nationalist.” He’s a fan of Trump’s pro-life stance and his championing of state’s rights over big government. “Trump has a lot of more things I agree with,” Santomassino said, “and also, don’t rock the boat if the economy’s doing this great.”
McCuiston casts herself as a moderate liberal, but “more moderate than anything.” Still, she’s particularly drawn to Sanders’ pitch for universal health care, pointing out that the U.S is the only large, rich country without such a system.
“He’s gone too far woke for me,” Santomassino said, explaining why Sanders didn’t win his support this cycle. While McCuiston sees Sanders as “a little more radical this time around,” she thinks the times call for a radical president. “I feel like, in order to see the change that needs to be effected, that that’s the necessary route to go.”
If the couple sounds like they’ve hashed this out before, it’s because they have. McCuiston said they’ve had what she calls a “talking points chat” to go over their different political views. “That was a good, just sort-of open discussion,” she said. “We definitely saw that we have more things in common than we actually have apart.”
It’s a lesson they think Americans could stand to be reminded of during this epic era of political divisiveness. According to data from the Pew Research Center, there are zero issues that both Democrats and Republicans widely consider to be to be top priorities today. And in a particularly telling series of surveys, social scientists have found that a growing number of Republicans and Democrats would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposing political party. But Santomassino just doesn’t see that in his home state. “The way that people have an attitude up here, I mean, as long as it’s a healthy discussion and no one’s at each other’s throat, we’re all gonna [come together],” he said. “This is America.”
“I want to be able to go to him with anything,” McCuiston said. “And it’s just an open-arms, open-door policy where we’re upfront and honest about how we feel about things.”
Just as she and Santomassino learned, McCuiston thinks other Americans who support different political candidates would also find that they have more in common than they thought—if they just talked to each other. Getting them to do it, she said, would be the hard part. “I feel like you just have to kind of let your guard down and find that willingness to connect, whether it be a person across the street, or the person that you’ve partnered with,” she said.
If Americans would do so, Santomassino offered, they’ll likely find people aren’t as extreme as they make themselves out to be on social media: “If people just sit across the table from each other, [they’ll] realize that we’re all pretty close in what we believe.”
After all, McCuiston added, “We’re all human.”