As much as I like to pore over polling data, focus groups offer color and texture that are missing from numbers on a page. Veteran pollster Peter Hart is a master at conducting focus groups. In Hart’s focus groups, you have a chance to hear voters describe what matters to them, why they vote the way they do, and whether their feelings are changing about a candidate, party, or issue.
Two weeks ago, Hart convened a group of 12 voters in Wilmington, North Carolina, in a session sponsored by Emory University, part of Emory’s “Conversations with America” series. Seven of the participants voted for Hillary Clinton last year, five for Donald Trump. Five described themselves as either Republican or leaning Republican, seven as Democrats or leaning Democratic.
I’m going to focus on the Trump supporters because they were the most interesting. Meet Cynthia, 64, a married nurse anesthetist, who singled out Rush Limbaugh as her biggest influence. Cynthia sees things improving since Trump took over, and particularly thinks the president is doing a good job on the economy. She credits Trump “for facing our problems.” She enjoys social media, where, she says, “I get to see a bigger opinion of everybody than just my family or who I work with.” Trump’s use of Twitter doesn’t bother her at all. “That’s how I hear from him.” As Cynthia explains, “The media does not give you a true opinion of what’s going on. They give their side. You have to find, really, what’s going on your own. And I appreciate what he tells me. It kind of gives me a little incentive that yes, he’s realizing this is happening.”
The second Trump supporter was Emily, 32, a married occupational therapist. Like Cynthia, she has a college degree and did some graduate work. Her view of social media is a bit different from Cynthia’s. “You see people sharing videos and just kind of putting their opinions everywhere and it just seems like everyone is looking for an argument somewhere.” A bit less sanguine about Trump’s performance, she describes his 10 months in office as “chaotic” and “rude and stressful.” Emily adds, “I feel like he told the people that he had all these big, big ideas and big plans and it just seems to kind of roll to something else—like nothing is ever accomplished.” The president’s use of Twitter bothers her. “I just don’t think that’s the way, the avenue, to speak to the people—especially when you hide behind tweets and say things there that you might not say elsewhere.” She adds: “He’s a bully.” She hasn’t abandoned Trump, but her enthusiasm for him seems to be waning.
The third Trump voter in the group was Michael, 41, married, a high school graduate who works as a cook. Michael gives Trump high marks on the economy. “I think he’s turning it in the right direction.” As for Trump’s behavior, “We kind of knew what we were getting with him. He was a loose cannon and I wouldn’t want him dating my daughter if they were the same age, but at the same time, [presidents] weren’t getting the job done leading the country either, but [he] was better than the alternative of a career politician.”
The fourth Trump voter in the focus group was Melissa, 62, a retired employee of North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension program. She has a graduate degree and calls herself a devotee of conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin. “I think that a lot of things that were done by past presidents need to be undone,” she says. But she does describe Trump as “antagonistic,” adding: “I had high hopes. I think he just goes about things in a way that gets everybody’s back up. He doesn’t facilitate working together. He comes out with these grandiose ideas and there’s no follow-through. … I just had such hopes that maybe things would be repaired, the whole country would be better off with him as president, but he hasn’t acted very presidential at all. The tweets bother me. They may be enlightening to some people. I’m not a tweeter, but to me, firing off these tweets is just childish a lot of times.” She thinks “he fires off things without any kind of filter and without thinking about what the ramifications are. It’s the things he says, it’s not the fact that he tweets that bothers me.”
But Melissa notes: “He’s not a professional politician. I think that this is his way of thinking that he’s speaking to the people, even if he goes about it in an odd way. But he really doesn’t have to provide fodder for people who are just sitting there waiting for something to jump on. And there’s plenty of those.” Melissa says, “A huge part of the population that was poised to hate Donald Trump, that they relish in the idea he’ll be unsuccessful—and I think there are people who are just sitting around waiting for that. And I think that it’s unfortunate that he hasn’t been able to accomplish any more than he has, even though he’s kind of in the right direction.”
The fifth Trump voter was Annie, 56, a divorced college graduate who is director of a nonprofit center. Annie complains about the media: “They seem to be, like, one channel is one party and one channel is the other party, and it’s like—it’s just so divisive. There’s not a medium ground anymore, so it’s just all very polarizing.”
Annie describes Trump’s first 10 months as chaotic, stressful, and an uphill battle. As for politicians in Washington, she’s “tired of their jockeying for position and not getting anywhere for our country. … I want to see some concrete results, not hearing ‘I’m not gonna vote for that because he suggested it.’ Or ‘I’m not gonna vote for this because she’s gonna vote for it.’ It’s like, I thought they were there to represent us and help our country and not be there just to position themselves. I think that is the swamp, and I think the swamp is still full. And I might be voting to empty that swamp some more. And that doesn’t mean I’ll vote for a Republican or a Democrat; it’s going to be based on their behavior and whether or not I found them to be trustworthy.”
The complaints about Trump by his supporters are almost entirely stylistic and behavioral, not substantive or ideological. They still hope he’ll grow into his role, adapting himself to the job rather than adapting the job to himself.