“Trump lies a lot and Biden’s kind of not all there” “The silver lining is that if Trump loses, he can run again!”: My final election focus groups in Pennsylvania and Arizona

 The final week of our virtual pre-election focus group tour of America’s swing states takes us to Pennsylvania, which swung narrowly to Trump four years having backed Democrats for president in every election since 1988, and Arizona, which has voted for the Republican in all but one election since 1948 but now high on Joe Biden’s list of targets.

With only days to go, we found some 2016 Trump supporters torn over how to cast their vote: “I was a little concerned that Biden’s not sure what he’s going to do with fossil fuel. And I’m concerned on Trump’s side with the healthcare system, but I like the economics, but maybe Biden has a better plan for disability people like me. So right now I’m stuck;” “Trump has no response plan for the virus, nothing’s going on. But I don’t think Biden really has a plan for this either;” “In 2016 I was willing to give him a chance because of what he could do for the economy and the fact that this was something different, he wasn’t just another politician. It’s not so easy now;” “Trump lies a lot and Biden’s kind of not all there.”


“Trump lies a lot and Biden’s kind of not all there.”


One frequent complaint was familiar from the last election four years ago: “I can’t believe in a country of 340 million people we can’t get better candidates. At the start of the election it seemed like this was the year it wasn’t going to be between two old white guys. And here we are at the election and we’re voting for one of two old white guys.”

The story about Hunter Biden’s allegedly incriminating emails continued to register with voters (though not all: “I’ve seen a picture of him with a meth pipe in his mouth, but that’s about it”). Those leaning towards Biden were not swayed: “I think it’s made up. I don’t see how people can be so worried about Biden’s son when Trump’s kids are full of nepotism.” Others were more inclined to believe the story was true and important but doubted it would make much difference at this stage in the campaign: “I think it’s a big deal, but the snowball is rolling a bit too fast to stop it now. About 50 million people have already voted.”


“I grew up respecting people like Reagan. Now it’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show.”


For 2016 voters who had drifted away from the president, two themes recurred. One was the manner in which he had gone about the job: “I love that it’s America first, that we are starting to become energy independent, that he’s making our country strong again. But he’s making us look weak by not handling this pandemic right, by acting like a child in these debates;” “I was very embarrassed about the debates, especially the first one. I grew up respecting people like Reagan, and my family listened when it was the debates or the state of the union or something the president said. Now it’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show;” “We voted for change. We thought he was going to come in and buck the political system and not play this left versus right game that we’re seeing now;” “It’s absolutely ridiculous. We knew we weren’t getting a professional with him, but he’s taken unprofessionalism to an entirely new level.”


“He thought he knew better than people who spent their entire lives studying this stuff. And he was wrong about that.”


Some of these likely defectors would have been more willing to overlook these failings, as they did in 2016, had it not been for Trump’s handling of the pandemic: “The first three years, I could easily say the good outweighed the bad because the economy was getting better. It’s the lack of response to this pandemic. It’s him contracting the virus himself and still downplaying it;” “The things he was doing for trade and unemployment were really good. He didn’t do so well on the pandemic and listening to experts. He thought he knew better than people who spent their entire lives studying this stuff. And he was wrong about that;” “He dropped the ball big time, not only playing it down, but making fun and making racial jokes about where it came from. If you lost someone during the pandemic it just show remorse. It’s not appropriate when you’re the leader of the country.”

Some thought Trump’s experience of covid was not what it seemed: “I don’t even think he had it.” Why would he fake it? “Attention! Maybe he was like, ‘I’ll just fake it and pretend I got over it in a day or two and look, it’s not that bad.”


“At the debate, he just faded out at the end like he wanted to go to bed.”


Not that anyone was particularly enthused by the idea of President Joe Biden, including those who were intending to vote for him. As we have seen throughout the campaign, many worried that he might not be up to the job, physically and mentally: “I’ve dealt with a lot of dementia in my family, and you see Biden is getting older, just starting to mentally lose it. How’s he going to be in two years, three years, four years?” “He was saying he wants his vice president to be willing to be president. It’s alarming that he’s basically conceding that if he wins, he’s not going to be in office for long enough to do anything.” Some thought this had been in evidence at the final TV debate of the campaign: “If there’s no teleprompter, that poor guy can’t finish that thought;” “At the debate, he just faded out at the end like he wanted to go to bed.”


“Pelosi has already reminded us of the Twenty Fifth Amendment so she can remove his ass and Kamala will be president.”


There were also continuing concerns that Biden would be a vehicle for much more radical left-wing elements within the Democratic party: “I think Joe wants to be a moderate. But he has to agree with people who are so far left that he says one thing and really means another. That’s what keeps me back from choosing him;” “In the primaries, the people he was saying ‘their ideas are crazy’ he’s now saying ‘oh yeah, I’ll do that’;” “He’s the path of least resistance for the far left. He’ll do what they say. Pelosi has already reminded us of the Twenty Fifth Amendment so she can remove his ass and Kamala will be president.”

For some, the Democrat nominee simply met what they regarded as the minimum level of decency and dignity necessary in a president, unlike the incumbent: “Biden is offering some respect and some dignity to the office, and an office that we can say we want our kids to be president, and Donald Trump is not;” “I don’t like having a racist in office. It doesn’t matter how many good things you’ve done. If you can’t denounce white supremacy and groups like that, I can’t vote for you;” “We’re going to have the same problems, but maybe we’ll handle them a little different. Once he mocked that reporter, it doesn’t matter what you do after that. He did the military, he did the Muslims, I’m a Mexican and he said we were rapists and criminals.”


“Over the last four years I’ve come to love him.”


A few previous Trump supporters had fewer qualms about voting for him now than they did in 2016: “It’s a slam dunk. I didn’t know a lot about him then, but over the last four years I’ve come to love him.” Most traditional Republican voters we spoke to were sticking with him for policy reasons: “He’s trying to make it easier for business to accomplish what they want to accomplish;” “One of the coolest things is he wants to do school vouchers, so instead of being assigned to a certain public school you get to choose;” “Closing the southern border was huge. We were being overrun, literally. There were caravans;” “His reduction in taxes, restructuring trade deals;” “Look at the peace deals he’s brokered in the Middle East, Israel being recognised. Which gets zero press, by the way, zero.”


“At previous elections I’ve felt that if my guy doesn’t win, things are still going to be OK. This isn’t one of those elections.”


Fear of a radical change of direction under a Democrat administration also played an important part: “We’re going to save the world and give everybody free education and free healthcare and equal income. It’s just irrational;” “The anarchy that went on for 100 days on the streets of many cities, the blatant support for organisations that want to basically pillage and burn if they don’t get their way. That’s probably the biggest influencer for me;” “I watched the entire Democratic convention and they didn’t denounce the violence once, not one single time;” “It could be our way of life that’s at stake. It’s not just a few Democratic ideas, it’s upheaval of the whole system. The Green New Deal, he wants to get rid of oil. It doesn’t make sense, its just something that sounds good when a bunch of Berkeley students are arguing;” “You’re either supporting the police or you’re supporting Black Lives Matter;” “At previous elections I’ve felt that if my guy doesn’t win, things are still going to be OK. This isn’t one of those elections. I feel like there’s significant change ahead of us if Biden gets in.”


“It’s kind of mind-blowing, that population out there that supports craziness.”


In Pennsylvania, African American voters who had not turned out in 2016 usually said they did not think Hillary Clinton had deserved their vote, or that they had simply not expected her to need it: “If Bernie had been on the ballot I would have voted for Bernie, but I didn’t vote for Hillary because I didn’t think she was good enough. If I’d known the margin of victory in this state was so small, I definitely would have stopped being so stubborn and just stood in line and voted. Hindsight is 20/20;” “I thought she had it in the bank. I didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance in hell. Big mistake. Definitely won’t happen this time around;” “I guess I overestimated the citizens of the United States of America. I didn’t think with his lack of experience and the fact that he was grossly underqualified and, quite frankly, a criminal, that there was enough of the population that would actually elect him to office;” “He says what he’s going to do, and all that craziness that he’s doing, he said he was going to do it. And the scary thing is there were enough people who were just as crazy that voted for him. It’s kind of mind-blowing, that population out there that supports craziness.”

This was not to say the Democrats had necessarily learned their lessons from four years ago: “I don’t think they learned much of anything. The only thing they learned is to offer the bare minimum and say ‘we’re better than Trump’, which is obvious, but at the same time, there’s no real solution in place. Once they get to power, they’re going to follow their own agenda. How much of that agenda is really going to be about the people and how much is going to be about their self-centred leaders?”


“She’s a token, in my opinion.”


Nor were they particularly enamoured of Kamala Harris: “I don’t think she’s black. She’s like a token, in my opinion;” “She’s half Indian. Indian-Jamaican;” “He figured if he can get a black woman behind him, that will bring in the black vote and we’ll also bring in a lot of women;” “She didn’t do anything in California to get black men out of jail.”

At the same time, efforts by the Trump administration to reform the criminal justice system and reduce sentences for drug offences were given short shrift: “It’s overpopulation. That’s the real reason. It’s not because he wants to, it’s because the prisons are overcrowded and a lot of that is because of drug charges;” “What I’d like to see with the justice system is to treat minorities fairly, and that’s the problem. We’re not treated fairly.”


“Kanye and 50 Cent are just as crazy as he is.”


What did these voters make of recent polls that showing Trump could be on course to win a bigger share of the African American vote than he did four years ago? “Maybe they’re African Americans with a lot of money, because Trump is about the upper crust and it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. So I could see African Americans that are well off supporting Trump. They probably share his opinions that there should be an upper class and a lower class and they stay in their places.” How about Kanye West’s Republican leanings and the rapper 50 Cent apparently endorsing Trump? “They get the tax breaks. They only care about themselves and their pocketbooks;” “They’re just as crazy as he is.”

Latino voters in Arizona who had also sat out 2016 were slightly more complimentary about the Democrats’ efforts to woo them: “I think they’re not taking the Latino vote and the youth vote for granted like they have in the past;” “I have heard commercials in Spanish that Biden approves and they let another person do the commercial in Spanish. Not like ‘oh, I’m trying my Spanish just for you.’ I like that because it’s not faking it. I like that they’re actually reaching out in our language.”


“All of this inclusiveness and unity. What they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.”


Asked what Biden would do as president, many of his likely voters said things like “unite us”, “bring us closer together” or “bring peace and unity.” Others on both sides doubted it would be as straightforward as that: “It doesn’t matter who the president is, you can’t tell everyone to get along or make a law that says everybody gets along. You have to model good behaviour and hope for the best;” “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me. We can change the laws, we can change who can go to the bathroom in what room and who can play what sport, but my opinion is not worth anything;” “The tolerant left is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump then you’re an enemy; ” “I hope it’s rainbows and birds and everything, but Biden is not going to cure racism. We already know we’re surrounded by it. All these people voted for Trump, and we’re living among them;” “My dad’s first language is Spanish and he’s voting for Trump, as he did last time. And I’m like, ‘he wouldn’t even let you in his house! He doesn’t want you!’ It’s delusional to think, we’re brown, we’re not racist. There’s a lot of racism, it’s not pretty. And Mexicans don’t like Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans don’t like Cubans, Cubans don’t like… And the more divided we are, the harder it is to fight back.”


“The silver lining is that if Trump loses, he can run again!”


As in previous weeks, voters on both sides expected a very tight race, with both Trump and Biden supporters often pessimistic about their candidate’s prospects. If it is Biden who is inaugurated on 20 January, what will Donald Trump do next? “Who cares? He’ll start another business and run it into the ground and walk away scot free;” “I thought he was already retired and doing nothing;” “He’s going to go to prison;” “He’ll try to make money off doing a TV show because he needs the limelight. He’ll need it more if he loses than he does now.” For a few, hope sprang eternal: “They keep saying he’s going to run again in 2024. I wouldn’t put it past him. The silver lining is that if he does lose this election, he can run again.”



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