Voter Focus Group: Clinton Will Win
If Hillary Clinton softened up and Donald Trump buttoned up, each might improve their respective chances of wooing voters who are on the fence about the presidential choice this fall. But even Trump’s admirers who say they are undecided about their vote predict Clinton will be the next president.
Those were among the takeaways Thursday night during a two-hour focus-group conversation held in Milwaukee, Wis., conducted by Democratic polling firm Hart Research; the findings are part of an ongoing public opinion project for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Milwaukee was selected for a conversation in the wake of the two national party conventions because its characteristics are broadly representative of the national electorate. The dozen participants, who agreed to be observed by journalists during a live video-stream of the discussion, were Democrats, Republicans and independents who said they were undecided or leaning toward one of the two nominees.
At least a third of the men and women ages 27 to 63 who came together Thursday said they want to learn more about third-party candidates before casting their ballots.
Asked how he would make up his mind before November, Mike, a young software engineer who backed John McCain in 2008 and President Obama four years ago, said this election poses a challenge for him.
“Honestly, it’s probably going to come down to crunch time,” he said. Skeptical that Trump can discipline his rhetoric and wary that Clinton might have more shoes to drop from her emails or ties to the Clinton Foundation, he was still mulling.
“I think Donald Trump is just going to shoot himself in the foot,” he added. And while discussing Clinton, he said, “What else is she covering up? She’s been in politics a long time.”
The Milwaukee group described shared concerns about a few policy topics, including health care, the economy, and terrorism, but during the dissections of Clinton and Trump they rarely raised the candidates’ policy positions. Instead, they described their impressions of the nominees’ personalities, biographies and experiences to be president.
Clinton, they agreed, is a politician who wears a mask; an ambitious, smart woman of wealth and influence who lives a life removed from everyday Americans. She would benefit from “more transparency” and a sense of humor, members of the focus group added. Several participants questioned Clinton’s medical condition and stamina, which the Democratic nominee this week dismissed as a mythical worry invented by her detractors and disseminated by conservative media.
Cindy, a registered nurse who is five years younger than Clinton and leaning toward Trump, said, “I think she sweeps a lot of things under the carpet.”
Referring to the candidate’s private email server and the FBI’s conclusion that as secretary of state she was “extremely careless” with classified materials, Cindy asked, “Why did she get away with what she did?”
But those who favored Clinton for president focused on her skills rather than her persona. “I think she’s got more experience,” said Tim, a 44-year-old African-American preschool teacher who voted for Obama twice. “With that experience comes the know-how about how to get things done.”
Daniel W., a 61-year-old retired businessman who also voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, viewed Clinton through the lens of governing. “I think she’s able to build consensus,” he said.
But if Clinton’s challenge is that she’s seen as opaque and infrequently forthcoming (several participants likened her to a snake), Trump’s Achilles’ heel is that he’s perceived as too unplugged to become an effective president.
“I think he would really be an awesome candidate if he had his personality under control,” said Sheri, a 51-year-old compliance analyst, who voted for Obama in the last two elections and would like to root for Trump.
Barbara, a 62-year-old retiree who works part time, said the GOP nominee should demonstrate more self-control if he wants her vote. “I just need to see him rein himself in and zero in on the actual issues,” she said. “Stop being such a mudslinger.”
As an example, she mentioned Trump’s reference this week to Clinton as “a bigot,” which she found appalling. “Why would you say that? It tells me he has no filter.”
Several of the men in the group said they admired Trump’s business acumen and expressed some confidence that he could fill gaps in his knowledge by surrounding himself with savvy White House advisers, if elected. A few of the participants gave the business mogul credit for what they appreciated as warm relationships with his children, and ambitions for America’s future they believe are genuine and well placed.
“I know Donald Trump has good intentions,” said Steve, a 35-year-old operations manager who described himself as a Republican who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Obama in 2008. “But this isn’t a boardroom [and] by shooting off of the cuff … he needs to educate himself more. … I think it’s a big job and he doesn’t understand how much is involved yet.”
In predicting Clinton will be the next president, the Milwaukee group was more resigned that inspired by their consensus. For voters who are torn, the choice is not nearly as stark and straightforward as the nominees would like it to be.
Asked to compare the 2016 presidential election to a scent or an odor, the participants instantly created an echo chamber: It’s like sulfur, garbage, it stinks, rotten eggs, a skunk.
“It’s an embarrassment, a circus,” said one participant.
“There’s no leader for our children to look up to,” Sheri added.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anything from either one that tells me they’re looking out for the average Joe, middle-class person,” said Daniel W.
The undecided group predicted Clinton will be elected president not because of the campaign she’s waged but because her opponent may scuttle his chances for victory.
“It’s almost as if Donald Trump has lost my vote,” Tim said.
“Hillary will not earn my vote, but Trump could lose my vote,” said Daniel V., a 53-year-old machinist who said he is hopeful the Republican nominee can do well in the debates against Clinton.
“She just has to sit silent, and she’ll win,” predicted Dara, a 47-year-old recruiter who voted twice for Obama. She said a Clinton asset is her drive to succeed in politics in the first place.