A few months ago, I did my best Frank Luntz impression with four different focus groups of swing voters in states that will help decide the 2020 election. This was a project for the second season of The Wilderness, a podcast I host about how the Democratic Party can win again, and I thought it would be useful to talk to some real, gettable, mostly undecided voters.
In case you’re wondering, these voters were not the old-white-guy-in-a-diner variety who are always getting interviewed for pieces that continually break the surprising news about Trump supporters in Pennsylvania who still support Trump. It feels like we have a pretty good handle on what those ballots will look like, so I decided to sit down with people who will most likely be targets for both the Democratic nominee and the Trump campaign in 2020:
- Voters outside of Philadelphia, PA, who don’t follow the news very closely and don’t always vote Democrat
- Voters in the Phoenix, AZ, suburbs who supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016
- Voters outside of Milwaukee, WI, who supported Barack Obama in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016, and a Democrat in 2018
- Voters in Miami, FL, who supported Barack Obama in 2012, and then either stayed home or supported a third-party candidate in 2016
Before we dive in, a caveat: focus groups, unlike polls, are not statistically significant samples, and both should always be taken with a huge grain of salt. But these focus groups did allow for a conversation about politics with people who are roughly representative—by race, gender, education, party preference, and voting history—of the voters that Democrats will need to persuade and mobilize in this election. And, as you’ll see below, these focus groups also reveal that the views of the voters who Democrats need to persuade (Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton voters) and the views of the voters who Democrats need to mobilize (Democrats and non-voters) aren’t as different as the conventional wisdom suggests.
With all that said, here are four big takeaways from my conversations:
1. Even the Trump voters aren’t fans of Trump
“I voted for him. I think he’s done some good things, but I’m really concerned about where we’re headed in the next couple of years if he’s still around. I think he’s a laughingstock around the world. I don’t think he can be held accountable. I think he’s a liar.”
—Kevin, an Obama-Trump voter from Wisconsin
Only a handful of the forty voters I talked to spoke approvingly of Donald Trump. Even most of the Obama-Trump voters in Wisconsin were negative towards the president, with multiple participants calling him a “joke” and one calling him an “ass clown.” These Wisconsinites said that they voted for Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016, and Democratic candidates in 2018 for the same reasons: they wanted change (one even said that he voted for Obama because—and this is a direct quote—“he was not just old and white”). Most of them also said that Trump has yet to deliver on that change.
Across all four focus groups, the most common complaints about Trump were related to his tweeting and overall behavior, which they believe is childish, embarrassing, unproductive, and dangerous—particularly when it comes to our national security (and I conducted these groups before the Iran crisis). Others said they’re disappointed with Trump’s tax cut and his trade war. All but two of the Obama-Trump voters in Milwaukee said that Trump has been a worse president than they thought he would be.
The few people who did have positive things to say about Trump cited his handling of the economy and his actions on immigration (notably, two of the people in Miami who spoke approvingly of Trump’s immigration policy were immigrants themselves, from Cuba and Ecuador). One woman who voted for Trump in Wisconsin said that he deserves a second term to fulfill his many unkept promises. In response, a second Trump voter offered an argument that got many heads nodding: “Yeah, but if I say I’m going to push a rock up a hill, and I’m standing at the bottom of the hill four years later and the rock is still sitting next to me and I never tried to push it up the hill, then there’s no indication that the rock was ever going to go up the hill.”
2. There isn’t much love for Democrats, either
“I am a Democrat, I affiliate with Democrats, but the truth of the matter is I’m embarrassed for the Democratic Party”
—Heather from Pennsylvania
Most of these voters sounded like Democrats when they spoke about issues, but don’t have much love for the Democratic Party itself, which a few called “fragmented” and “disjointed.” There were complaints about the primary (too many candidates), the debates (too confusing and too much fighting), and the candidates, including Joe Biden (too old), Bernie Sanders (too socialist), Elizabeth Warren (too liberal), and Pete Buttigieg (too inexperienced). That said, some voters also spoke favorably about all four of these candidates, and most said it was too early to have strong opinions about any of them (again, this was October).
A good number of voters in Arizona and Florida said that they’re worried the party has become too liberal. In Arizona, the Romney-Clinton voters complained about both parties being too extreme, bemoaned a lack of compromise in Washington, and praised the election of the very moderate Arizona Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Though only one said he’s considering voting for Trump, a few said they need to see who the nominee is before committing to vote Democrat.
The same was true in Florida, where the Obama voters who stayed home or voted third party in 2016 were surprisingly negative towards Democrats. A young woman named Queneda said, “I think Democrats are babysitters. Sometimes I think they give too much. Sometimes it makes people lazy.” Renee, a Cuban immigrant, said that Democrat is “like a code word for socialism” and that socialism “backfired at us big time” in Cuba. Notably, the voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin didn’t express these concerns about socialism or liberalism, and most voters across all four groups said they want government to do much more on issues like health care, education, and retirement.
3. The #1 issue is health care
“Am I going to have health care? Is my boss gonna lay me off? How do I get it then? Is it going to be available? Where am I going to get the money to pay for anything if I don’t have a job?”
—Brad from Arizona
The cost and availability of health insurance and prescription drugs came up more than any other issue across all four groups, with words like “terrifying,” “huge problem,” and “getting worse” used to describe the state of our health care system. The Obama-Trump voters in Wisconsin were especially vocal about this issue, sharing stories about ambulance bills they couldn’t afford and hospitals overcharging them. One man said his biggest political issue is the legalization of marijuana, because it could replace all of the expensive prescriptions he’s taking.
The Wisconsin voters don’t believe the Affordable Care Act has improved their own situations, though one woman in Florida said that the ACA is the only positive impact government has made on her life that she can remember. And most of the voters in all four states want more government action on health care, with even the moderate Romney-Clinton voters in Arizona agreeing that government should guarantee health care for every American.
Still, even though there was plenty of anger towards insurance companies and hospitals, some people worried about too much government involvement in the health care system. In a sign that many voters are not paying attention to the details of the Medicare for All vs. public option debate, most people had no idea what either policy is. The exception was the Arizona voters, many of whom sounded like pundits as they worried about the political implications of Medicare for All—that it would be labeled socialist and render candidates unelectable, for example. Most of these voters said they prefer a public option, which was still fairly surprising to hear from a room full of people who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
4. Trump may not be Democrats’ biggest challenge
“How would you say politics makes you feel right now?”
“It’s comedy for me.”
“From both sides.”
“Sometimes I just don’t even want to watch it.”
“You go on MSNBC, Fox, whatever. Everything that’s happened seems like it’s a joke to them.”
—Voters in all four states
More than anything else, what stayed with me after the focus groups was the overwhelming cynicism these voters have towards almost every American institution. What unites most of them isn’t just disgust and disappointment with Trump, but with a political system that only seems to work for a shrinking number of people who aren’t them.
That includes most media outlets, which they view as unserious and untrustworthy—a lot of yelling, posturing, and silliness on their television screens that leaves them angry, exhausted, and confused. Voters in two different focus groups said that they prefer the BBC because they no longer trust the American media to report accurately on American politics.
The cynicism also extends to both political parties, even though I’d argue that it’s largely been Republican politicians and right-wing media personalities who’ve degraded our institutions and divided the country for profit. But because their strategy has succeeded, here we are, and in order for Democrats to reach the kind of voters I spoke to—to reach most voters, really—I think it will require something more than a critique of Trump, more than a critique of Republican policies, and even more than a vision of progressive government that would tangibly improve their lives.
Democratic candidates will have to persuade these voters that this vision is actually possible—that they’ll run a government that functions and delivers for people; a government that is ethical and honest and staffed with public servants who respect the rule of law. Democrats will also have to persuade voters that they’ll do their best not to wallow in the pettiness and nastiness of politics—that they’ll skip the small, stupid fights that dominate Twitter and cable news to focus on the big, hard fights that truly matter to people—the cost of health care, the epidemic of gun violence, the existential threat of climate change.
Most of all, Democrats will have to persuade the country that they intend to represent all people, no matter who they are, what they look like, where they come from, or how they vote. A populist desire to upend the political system might seem to conflict with a hunger for leaders who will try to heal the country’s divisions, but from the perspective of voters who are tired of endless political warfare that doesn’t ever seem to result in much progress, it makes sense. The answer is not to ignore these frustrations, nor is it to pretend that one election will somehow change Republican behavior. In the face of Trump’s I-alone-can-fix-it demagoguery, Democrats can’t forget to inspire a cynical electorate to dig deep and believe that the messy, frustrating work of democracy in a nation as big and diverse as ours is still possible.