In this era of political tribalism, with so many people living in partisan and ideological silos—living, working, and socializing with like-minded people—it tends to not just reinforce thinking, but also to disconnect us from others with different backgrounds and points of view.
This past week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked respondents open-ended questions with verbatim responses transcribed, a staple in campaign-sponsored polling but unusual among those that the media commissions. Though observing a focus group of a dozen voters is invaluable—watching facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, reactions to what others say—reading 40 pages of verbatim responses from 900 people covers a lot of ground, too.
The NBC/WSJ poll—conducted by the bipartisan team of Fred Yang, Peter Hart, and the Democratic firm of Hart Research, which Peter founded; and Bill McInturff and Micah Roberts from the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies—asked of 900 Americans, “In only a few words, please describe the main impression you have about President Trump based on what you have seen, read, or heard about the Mueller report.”
Among the roughly 250 Republicans interviewed, there was a clear pattern of language, with the terms “witch hunt” and “no collusion” appearing in one verbatim response after another. Who says repetition doesn’t reinforce messaging?
Typical was a 60-64-year-old suburban white male college graduate from Michigan who voted for Trump in 2016: “I think he's exonerated. I think it was a witch hunt.” A 75+-year-old suburban white male high school graduate from Wisconsin who voted Trump: “He was found innocent of all the charges.” A 60-64-year-old Trump-voting female with a master’s degree from rural Iowa: “I believe the Mueller report cleared President Trump of any collusion with Russia in the last election.”
Another man from Michigan, a 65-69-year-old suburban Trump voter, pronounced that, “I think it was an orchestrated witch hunt,” and that “it was started back before Trump was President, before he was elected. It was paid for with Democratic funds.” A 30-34-year-old Trump-backing, urban Illinois man said he felt that the Muller report “vindicated (Trump), they have been pushing it so long and I heard about it every day from the media and it came out there was no collusion. They are trying to convince us there was obstruction but there were just scraps there, and there was no obstruction.” He added that Trump “didn't invoke any executive privilege, he told everyone to comply with the investigation. He gave them all the documents they requested and they chased him for two years and came up with nothing.”
A 75+-year-old Trump-voting high school graduate from rural Vermont concluded, “I think he [has] been the most persecuted President in the country,” while a 65-69-year-old female with some high school education from suburban Pennsylvania said, “I back President Trump in whatever he’s doing right now because I think he’s doing what’s right for our country.”
The tone was considerably different among the 300 or so Democrats interviewed. One 55-59-year-old Clinton-voting suburban woman from New York said, “I believe the Mueller report was inconclusive without Trump's involvement,” though that was a minority view among Democrats. A 25-29-year-old college graduate suburban woman from California responded, “Very simple, guilty of collusion and obstruction.”
A 30-34 year-old Clinton-voting suburban post-graduate-educated and somewhat-liberal-identifying Virginia man opined, “Being incapable of acquitting someone in a court of law does not equate innocence. There is sufficient evidence to indicate he and his colleagues were directly involved in the influencing of the 2016 elections. Mueller is very thorough and I trust his judgement, but he also makes it very clear that we should have a critical eye toward the President.” A number of respondents commented that Trump was lucky that aides ignored some of his demands to do things that may well have been illegal.
A few Democrats who weren’t Trump fans were ready to move on. A 60-64-year-old moderate college-graduate male from suburban Oregon said, “I think that too much energy has gone into it, that Trump hasn't done anything horribly wrong, and that the nation should move on,” adding that “I just think there's too much attention given to it.”
More broadly, there were comments like the one from a 30-34-year-old male Democrat from Nebraska who voted for Trump: “He is basically a rogue reality TV star,” he said before paradoxically adding, “I wouldn't necessarily say he's a bad guy, I haven't met him, and we will leave it at that.”
Other Democrats were far less generous toward Trump. A 50-54-year-old suburban Georgia man with a college degree said, “He is a complete lying, unethical person that should have never been elected President. Just, it caused me to lose faith in people in America,” adding, “I'm liable to start cussing.” A 55-59-year-old suburban Pennsylvania woman with two years of college said that after the release of the report, “It hasn't changed. I never liked him and never will. Because he is ignorant and a bully and not a good leader and divides this country terribly with people on both sides. He continues to lie and cheat.”
A 55-59-year-old college graduate Asian suburban woman from Minnesota simply said, “He's a bad role model.” Somewhat harsher, an 18-24-year-old, Hispanic female, high school graduate from New York who did not vote in 2016 said about Trump, “He should be impeached. He's a criminal, a traitor. Con artist. Bigot racist,” before offering, “I can go on if you like.”
A 60-64-year-old suburban Clinton-voting Colorado man with some post-graduate education declared, “Donald Trump will go down one thousand years from now as the worst President in history.”
A 75+-year-old Tennessee woman with some graduate school said, “I think he has made us the laughingstock of the world,” adding that “it’s hard to imagine the American public was dumb enough to elect him.” Another 75+-year-old woman with some graduate school and from suburban New Jersey declared, “I think he's the worst President we've ever had he doesn't understand the Constitution. He's not a dictator but he thinks he's a dictator.”
The largest group was the roughly 333 independents interviewed. A 60-64-year-old, suburban New York woman with a college degree who voted for Clinton said, “I would say he's somebody who lies and is willing to obstruct justice. And even if he isn't a criminal in that, he's asked other people to do his dirty work for him. Well, I have reservations about going to impeachment simply because I don't think Republicans will impeach him. So, we should continue with the investigation so we can have that information as voters.” But on the other hand, a 65-69-year-old rural Washington state man with a college degree came down on the other side, saying Trump “should be impeached. He obstructed justice. Congress needs to look into his finances. I think there's lots of dirty dealings there.”
No doubt there are comments reported above that will offend just about everyone, but it reflects the bitter divisions in American politics today and the strong opinions that roughly three-quarters of Americans have—either for or against Trump.