WASHINGTON — For bankers, this year's presidential election may come down to the devil they know versus the one they don't.
Despite continued turmoil in the primaries, the contest is still likely to pit former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against the New York real estate magnate Donald Trump.
For many community bankers, both are unattractive options. They fear Clinton represents a continuation of the regulatory policies of the Obama administration, which they argue have brought them to the brink of extinction. But Trump's banking plan is vague at best, and it's unclear who would advise him on financial matters or what his agenda might be.
"I don't like either of our choices. There is too much baggage with both of them," said a community banker who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In interviews with bankers across the country, many made it clear that neither Clinton nor Trump was their first, second or even third choice.
In a recent unofficial poll of roughly 1,000 bankers at a Consumer Bankers Association conference earlier this month, 85% said they would prefer an alternative to either Clinton or Trump. Fifty-two percent said that, if forced to choose they would pick Clinton, while 48% preferred Trump.
But in another informal poll, conducted by the Independent Community Bankers of America the next day, 83% of bankers participating said they preferred Trump, with only 17% backing Clinton.
Many Republican bankers flocked first to the campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday last month, and then to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who dropped out this month.
Some are still holding out hope for a victory by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who won the primary in his home state but is far behind in the race for Republican delegates.
Kasich is "by far the most qualified for the position that is still in the race," said Scott McComb, president and chief executive of the $730 million-asset Heartland Bank in Gahanna, Ohio. "He understands finance, he understands the difference between big banks and small banks, and he understands also that we need to have big banks and we have to have small banks, but they should be regulated independently of one another and on a level playing field commensurate to size."
To be sure, Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or possibly another Republican candidate could win the nomination if it becomes a brokered convention. Former House Speaker John Boehner has publicly suggested allowing Speaker Paul Ryan — who isn't even in the running — as the GOP nominee if Trump does not secure enough delegates.
If forced to choose between Clinton and Trump, however, McComb ultimately said he would back Trump, citing fears that Clinton is moving to the left on financial issues.
"She is the most dangerous of all of them because she is going to be heavily influenced by" Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., "and I think that is a big danger for the banking industry," McComb said.
Indeed, there are persistent fears in the industry that Clinton will select Warren, the founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as her vice presidential candidate. Such a move would boost Clinton's support among the progressive wing of her party, which is currently supporting rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., but would undoubtedly alienate many bankers.
In the same CBA poll earlier this month, support for Clinton dropped to 37% if she picked Warren as her running mate; a Trump ticket with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won with 63%.
McComb argues that since Trump is a businessman, he would relate to bankers' point of view.
"He has done enough business that he also understands the value that banks provide the system," he said. "I think he would be sensitive to community banks because he would think we are insignificant so he would cut us a break."
But not all bankers agree. Keith Mestrich, president and CEO of the New York City-based Amalgamated Bank, which banks a number of labor groups as well as political organization such as the Ready for Hillary political action committee, said he would support the eventual Democratic nominee because "the values of the party line up with the values of this bank."
"Our position in the bank is that we don't take a position when there's a primary, but we will absolutely back the Democratic candidate for president," Mestrich said.
It is difficult, however, to find many bankers willing to take a public position on the election when it is still so many months away.
"When it is open season as we are engaged in now, you don't see many bankers in the first row or out on the sidelines as cheerleaders," said Charles Doyle, chairman of the $950 million-asset Texas First Bank in Texas City.
Doyle, a former mayor of Texas City, said bankers are more vocal on specific legislative issues than the candidates themselves.
"I think bankers are really frustrated with the legislative process. We just don't understand why government on all levels has continued to do for the last several years and that is really to reduce the number of entrants," Doyle said.
Doyle noted that he ended up folding a de novo charter he founded into Texas First Bank because 40-50% of the revenues were being spent on outside experts to help with compliance.
He said he hopes that the next president will surround himself or herself with people who understand community banking, but said he hadn't decided on who he would support yet. "Like most Americans, I have been observing a lot of behavior I would support and a lot of behavior I would not support," he said. "I have not formed an opinion yet."
Michael Olson, vice president of the $830 million-asset Lincoln Savings Bank in Grinell, Iowa, who supported Jeb Bush during the caucuses there, said he was recently swayed after hearing a speech by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling. The Texas Republican told a recent American Bankers Association conference that he planned to introduce a bill soon to loosen regulations on community banks.
"I will be voting for the Republican nominee, whoever that may be, so that there is someone in the White House that will actually sign this type of legislation," Olson said.
Albert "Kell" Kelly, CEO of the $650 million-asset SpiritBank in Tulsa, Okla., also said he would support the Republican nominee no matter who ends up being the candidate.
"None of the Democrat side will pull away from the already hugely burdensome regime of regulations so I believe the only chance we have as bankers is to support the Republican side, whoever that is, because otherwise we are doomed," Kelly said.
He acknowledged that Trump is a contentious pick. Violence has broken out at several of the billionaire's rallies, which many blame on Trump's rhetoric.
"Even though Trump carries tremendous controversy and everything else, the unknown is better than the known on the Democratic side," Kelly said. "I want a president that is going to do anything" that would reduce regulation "and I'll take a chance on Genghis Khan right now if he comes out on the Republican side."
In this way, many community bankers may split from those who work for larger banks. The biggest institutions have given heavily to Clinton's campaign, and many are comfortable with her as a potential president, particularly given her experience as a former senator from New York. Clinton's Wall Street reform plan, meanwhile, has targeted shadow banks over big banks, and lacks any of the more ambitious tenets of Sanders' plan.
Trump, meanwhile, has said little about Wall Street reform, beyond a vague pledge to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act. But he has also openly courted the idea of starting a trade fight with China and other foreign nations.
"Trump would be bad for the big banks if he is going to start these trade wars he is talking about," McComb said.