Election of the Deplorables: Swing Voters Loathe Both Candidates

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Alexandria, VA - In a drab office building in the suburbs of northern Virginia 30 undecided voters — carefully selected to represent a cross-section of the US electorate — filed into a neon-lit conference room to help pollsters try to make sense of an extraordinary presidential race.

Three hours later, as the focus group session ended, the veteran pollster Frank Luntz delivered a grim conclusion.

These floating voters in a crucial swing state loathed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in almost equal measure. One of the candidates must win the election but both are turning off voters.

The contest, it seems, has degenerated into what could be termed the election of the deplorables - the candidates, not the voters.

“This should really depress you,” said Luntz, normally an irrepressible political enthusiast, after The Sunday Times was permitted to observe the session through a one-way mirror linking the conference room to a small viewing gallery.

“I just want it to be over,” he added. “This is the candidate you distrust [Clinton] versus the candidate you dislike [Trump].”

The startling unpopularity of the two people vying to become the next US president has turned the election into the most upsetting contest that Americans have experienced in the modern era. One middle-aged woman in the group said she had considered moving to Canada.

It proved a starkly negative end to a week in which Trump mocked Clinton for being frail and untruthful about her health after she collapsed from pneumonia and Clinton branded Trump a racist and accused him of inciting violence.

The reaction of the focus group, conducted by Luntz in association with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), was to be disgusted with both of them.

With just over seven weeks until election day, Clinton, the Democratic nominee, leads Trump, her Republican opponent, by a fast-shrinking margin most recently calculated at 1.5 points.

The momentum is at present with Trump after Clinton was forced off the campaign trail for three days to recuperate — leading to her nearly eight-point lead last month all but evaporating.

The Republican billionaire has edged ahead in the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida and is only 3.5 points behind in Virginia.

Yet Trump’s seemingly irrepressible ability to provoke outrage and pick fights with ordinary Americans has meant he has been unable to capitalise fully on voter perceptions of Clinton that are so negative they would ensure her defeat in any other year.

Last week Trump picked on a female pastor of a black church in Flint, Michigan, describing her as a “nervous mess” after she interrupted to stop him using her pulpit for a political attack on Clinton.

He then revived the pointless controversy over his doomed claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States by blaming Clinton for starting the so-called “birther” rumours.

Most of America knows perfectly well that it was Trump who seized on the false “birther” claims and turned them into a pillar of his anti-Obama campaign.

Over the course of the focus group session there was a slight movement in Clinton’s direction, with eight of the 30 voters leaning towards her at the start and 11 by the end.

Those leaning towards Trump went from six down to three. The rest did not much like either of them.

Sitting in four rows and using dials to indicate how they felt as television adverts or campaign statements were played on a screen, the group signalled its displeasure almost every time either of the contenders spoke.

When they were asked to describe Clinton, the words used included “deceitful”, “entitled”, “unpleasant”, “untrustworthy”, “liar”, “corruption”, “uninspiring” and “crooked”.

Any comfort this might have given Trump was quickly dispelled as the mention of his name prompted the labels “crazy”, “unstable”, “arrogant”, “megalomaniac”, “vindictive, “unbalanced”, “dumb”, “charlatan”, “bigot” and “hateful”.

The focus group indicated that this was being counterproductive because swing voters — who usually decide close elections — were being turned off by the attacks.

Clinton had recently prompted a wave of indignant outrage from Trump supporters after she told wealthy donors in Manhattan: “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”

Trump’s campaign seized on the “basket of deplorables” remark as an insulting gaffe akin to the defeated 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s disastrous characterisation of 47% of American voters as people “who believe they are victims . . . who believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing”.

So far, so bad for Clinton, but when Luntz unveiled a Trump attack advertisement highlighting her gaffe — which she has since said she regrets — the reactions of the focus group were just as negative.

It was the candidates, not the voters, who were the real deplorables, the focus group seemed to be saying.

The comments about Trump were so brutal that Luntz said the candidate would have smashed through the observation room’s mirror “at least 10 times” if he had been present.

“Trump’s brain is a bag of cats,” said Megan Ritter, a conservative former teacher. “It’s a crapshoot as to which one you’re going to get, what he’s going to say or which grasp of reality he’s going to have on any given day.”

Beverly Keane, a retiree, was outraged by Trump’s recent row with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq.

“He’s insulting the military, he’s insulting Muslims, he’s insulting women, the whole ball of wax — it’s just a horrible thing,” Keane said.

Their views of Clinton were just as damning and showed that her problems over trust are colossal.

James Comey, director of the FBI, has blasted her for being “extremely careless” when she was secretary of state in her handling of classified information on a secret email server.

“She lied and then she lied about lying,” said William Sanders, another retiree.

Zach Upchurch, a graduate student, added: “This is not a monarchy but she sees herself as above everybody else.”

At the end of the session The Sunday Times asked the 30 voters what Trump and Clinton had to do to win in November. Trump had to change his tone, be humble and study the issues, they said. The consensus was he had to be diplomatic. Could he do it? Only three felt he could.

For Clinton to win, the majority said, she had to stop lying. Was she capable of being honest? All but two raised their hands and gave a resounding verdict: “No!”

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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