“He’s so toxic he’s worn out his welcome” “He’s the first president I paid attention to because he’s awesome” “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country”: My latest US election focus groups

This week our virtual focus-group tour of America takes us to two more swing states, one in the rustbelt and one in the sunbelt: Michigan, which voted for the Democrat in every presidential election for 20 years before narrowly backing Donald Trump in 2016, and North Carolina, recently a more Republican-leaning state where polls now give Joe Biden a slim lead.

The week has been dominated by the Senate hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nomination the vacant seat on the Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The issue is the source of fruitless allegations of hypocrisy on all sides: the Democrats furious that the process is happening at all given the Senate’s refusal to confirm an Obama nominee in the months before the 2016 election, and the Republicans pointing out that the nominee in question would certainly have been confirmed if the Democrats had had the votes in the Senate.


“If the Democrats were in the same position, they’d be doing the same thing.”


The move annoyed most of Trump’s opponents in our groups, as well as some of his former voters: “The Senate has totally 180’d on their rule that they made up four years ago… [Republican Senate leader] Mitch McConnell himself said you should not do a Supreme Court nomination during an election year when it was Obama’s turn, but now it’s Trump’s turn, let’s shove this woman through as fast as humanly possible before the election.” They suspected Trump of wanting to secure a conservative majority on the Court in advance of a potential dispute over the election result, as in 2000: “He’s already saying ‘election fraud!’ when we haven’t even had the election yet, so it feels very suspicious. It feels like they’re doing everything in their power to make sure he wins no matter what, and they need to have that Supreme Court justice confirmed and in place to make sure that happens.”

Most Trump supporters in our groups, and even a few opponents, saw nothing wrong in the president making the nomination and the hearings going ahead: “The Constitution says it’s his job to do so, so it’s his job to do so;” “I don’t really have a problem with it. The president serves four years, not three;” “If the Democrats were in the same position, they’d be doing the same thing. Obama had the right to do it, and the Republican Senate had the right to say no. It’s the Constitution.”

Even some Biden-leaning voters were worried by the suggestion that the Democrats might appoint more judges to the court to create a liberal majority: “How many times are we going to be allowed to change the rules? We shouldn’t do something that we would not want them to do either;” “Biden wouldn’t answer that question, so that kind of gets me a little scared.” But for some, the Supreme Court question seemed too remote to be very animating: “I don’t care one way or the other. I mean, what difference does it make to me?”


“He’s had a kind of karma experience… He said it was a hoax and how he’s a super-spreader.”


Otherwise, Trump’s encounter with covid continued to preoccupy many voters of all shades. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s illness brought forth expressions of concern and goodwill from across the political divide – had this been the case with the president? “There’s Democrats saying ‘we wish him all the best,’ and I guess they have to mean it because Pence isn’t much better. But then there are those who say ‘yeah, you deserved it’;” “He’s had a kind of karma experience where he put it off and was saying it was a hoax. And it did come around, and now he’s considered to be a super-spreader.” Everyday human sympathy was set against the widespread feeling that he had failed to protect himself or other people: “He greatly increased his chances. He didn’t take precautions; he didn’t wear a mask;” “He gave it to all the White House people and didn’t quarantine himself.” Many felt his wider actions – or lack of them – had led to a higher American death toll than might otherwise have been the case: “He basically encouraged his followers to come out and be in close contact and not wear masks. He’s helped kill a lot of people, I think;” “We know that he knew about the dangers of the virus at the very beginning, that it could be spread through the air, and he said ‘it’s not a deal, it’s going to be gone by Easter. Everything’s totally fine’.”


“He wants to come across like he’s bigger than the virus.”


Some took a more forgiving view (“Everyone is going to get it, regardless, until they come up with a vaccine;” “He was trying to avoid panic;” “I don’t think it would have made a difference who was in the White House”), but even a number of his former voters saw Trump’s handling of the pandemic as the emblematic of his presidency: “Whoever was in charge would have struggled, but he just comes across as too defiant to want to take advice from anybody, the medical profession. His ego just gets in the way the whole time;” “He just puts his foot in his mouth, or he messes up. I’m sure he had a great idea of coming out and saying he can continue with his work and all that, but the way he does it and presents it just makes him look irresponsible;” “He wants to come across like he’s bigger than the virus, he’s going to beat it. And he’s surrounded by yes-men. He’s fine with a doctor standing next to him until they disagree one time, then all of a sudden they’re gone.”


“I thought he would rise to the occasion, that he would elevate himself to the office. And then it just seems like a circus.”


Some who had not traditionally voted Republican but had switched to Trump in the hope of seeing change saw all this as the latest in a long line of disappointments: “He has done stuff, but I think he is for the rich, he’s not for the working middle class. I thought he was going to be more for all the people;” “For me, what he says doesn’t match what he does. He’ll say, ‘I’m going to pass this executive order’ and it doesn’t actually do anything for the people. Or he’ll say, ‘I’m doing something on healthcare’, but four years later there’s still not a plan to share.” Though he had not seemed particularly presidential in 2016, “I thought he would rise to the occasion. I thought he would elevate himself to the office and he actually wanted to do things for the people. And then it just seems like a circus and it’s accelerating;” “I think people are just fed up with Trump. I think he’s so toxic he’s worn out his welcome. Everything that’s coming out of his mouth is the opposite of what everybody expects from a president.”

A few of these 2016 Trump supporters even worried about what a second term might bring: “I’ve never seen our country so divided and I don’t like it. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe;” “What disappoints me most is his refusal to condemn white supremacy. I’m white, but I’m also a Jewish American woman. So that’s terrifying to me – what’s going to happen to me if he gets elected and continues with this rhetoric? I’m afraid for myself. I don’t have a president that I feel cares about me or will stand up for me or protect me – that I’m someone who he dislikes.”


“He’s the first president I actually paid attention to because the way he comes across is awesome. If it wasn’t for this covid thing, he’s just remarkable.”


But for longer-standing Republican voters, Trump’s antics continued to be the price they were willing to pay – albeit though increasingly gritted teeth – for the policy direction they wanted to see: “We wanted him to straighten out our economy and get some of our jobs back from these foreign countries and get some more people to work, and yeah, I think he’s done that.” Relations with China and North Korea, action on immigration and the jobs, and three conservative Supreme Court nominations were also mentioned in his defence. “It’s just his policies. I know what he wants to do and what I want to stop from happening in the other direction.” Even so, it was not a decision they all relished: “I’d say I’m 75 per cent for Trump. But I’ll be taking a good flask of Kentucky bourbon in there to help me colour those dots for him.”


“He’s cognitively not all there. He’s just not.”


Few thought the idea of Biden as president was worrying or inspiring in itself – voters of all persuasions described him as “mild”, “middle-of-the-road,” “laid back” and “the safe pick”. But they were also united in seeing him as a “stop-gap” president: “If you watch his speeches, he’s cognitively not all there. He’s just not;” “If he doesn’t have a script, he loses his train of thought;” “He’s so super-old!”

The bigger divide was between those who feared he would prove to be a bridge to a much more liberal administration under President Kamala Harris – and those who hoped he would be. “I think within maybe two years at most, Kamala might be president,” said one Biden-leaning voter. “And then you’ve got one of the most radical people on the left running the country all of a sudden. That’s the one thing that makes me pause about voting for him;” “It’s more and more obvious that the whole point of the left is to get him in office, and then I think his role is going to diminish, and others in the party that a lot more liberal with their agendas are going to be running things;” “It worries me, the whole squad. AOC [left-wing New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Kamala and Bernie Sanders;” “Biden was the obvious pick to be moderate and just vanilla. If he could get them through to the finish line and win, they’re going to take over and do what they want to do.”

For more liberal voters, this was an appealing prospect: “I kind of like Kamala and, I mean, he’s 78 years old, so I like my chances of getting her in there;” “Let’s get some distance from this current administration, reset a little bit, and then in the next election let’s hope someone can come in and lead. Like AOC”.


“There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country.”


Liberal voters who stayed at home or backed third-party candidates rather than vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 were determined to toe the line this time, however uninspired they felt (“Another elderly white man in office is not inviting. No, I’m not enthusiastic”). Some felt guilty at having failed to keep Trump out of office four years ago: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating people in our lives?” Some felt Clinton had only herself to blame (“She should have been out campaigning instead of going on Ellen and dancing;” “One thing that made it easy not to vote for Hillary was being called deplorable”) but others blamed Russia, the electoral college system, or the fact that “there’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country. Idiots and the frickin’ old, racist white men.”

At the same time, their biggest professed hope for a Biden presidency was that America would be less divided and “more unified.” Why would Republicans be more united behind Biden than you were behind Trump? “Because having him and Harris in those positions will bring an end to that divisiveness, and because I believe in their intellect and hope they wouldn’t think I’m stupid.” But you think they were stupid to elect him? “I do believe there was some lack of knowledge, there was some gap. Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”


“Trump wants to overpower and bully, and he can’t do that virtually.”


With less than three weeks to go, several of our participants remained undecided. These people wanted to hear more about where both candidates stood on policy issues, especially healthcare. They were therefore disappointed by Trump’s insistence that he would not take part in the second debate, switched to a virtual format as a precaution against covid. Though an appealing idea (“It’s great because you could mute Trump and he couldn’t talk over Biden”), they thought they had the measure the president’s position: “He wants to overpower and bully and he can’t do that virtually;” “Joe reads off a teleprompter when he’s doing stuff in this way. If you’re face to face, Joe has to answer questions.”

Despite Biden’s clear lead in the polls, many of those leaning towards voting for him were notably pessimistic – whether because they thought Trump’s support remained stronger than it looked, or because he would find a way to subvert the democratic result: “It just feels so unpredictable. I know what I’m going to do, but I have a horrible gut feeling about this;” “Just by looking through Facebook, people are still behind him, still posting memes. It just seems that they are not changing their minds. I have a hard time seeing and thinking that any of his supporters are actually switching sides;” “Biden’s going to come up ahead, but I just think Trump is going to pull something. He’s going to argue, and this thing will go on for weeks, and it’s going to go on until he gets his way.”


“He’s appealing to his hardcore base and doesn’t realise he needs more than that to win this time. It’s frustrating, because I believe in a lot of what he wants to do.”


Conversely, Republican-inclined voters we spoke to tended to think a Trump victory was unlikely, not least because he seemed to have made no attempt to reach beyond his already committed supporters: “He’s appealing only to his hardcore base and he doesn’t realise he needs more than that to win this time. It’s frustrating to me because I believe in a lot of what he wants to do. He’s just not taken the opportunity to gain some of these swing voters that could make it a win for him. And I just don’t think he’s going to win.”




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