‘Hard con­ver­sa­tions’ with vot­ers, firm dis­ap­point­ment with Trump

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By David Shrib­man NEA Contributor

PITTS­BURGH — Take a dozen peo­ple of wildly dis­parate views from a bat­tle­ground state, put them to­gether with one of the top pub­lic-opin­ion ex­perts in the coun­try, close the door for more than two hours and for­tify them only with teeny 8-ounce bot­tles of wa­ter — and the re­sult is ut­terly un­pre­dictable.

That’s what hap­pened here Tuesday night, where — a sur­prise to all! — a civil con­ver­sa­tion broke out. There was emo­tion, to be sure. There were strong feel­ings, of course. But there was also sear­ing and search­ing con­ver­sa­tion — and, though par­ti­san dif­fer­ences per­sisted, there were some clear, sober warn­ings for Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump.

The Democrats who were skep­ti­cal of him be­fore the elec­tion re­main so.

The In­de­pen­dents and Repub­li­cans who backed him showed their own skep­ti­cism — skep­ti­cism tinged with dis­ap­point­ment. To­gether they ex­pressed wor­ries about the coun­try. On oc­ca­sion — rarely, but some­times — it was even hard to tell the Trump vot­ers from the Trump crit­ics.

This was a fo­cus group, not a sci­en­tific poll. Emory Uni­ver­sity in At­lanta has asked Peter Hart, a Demo­cratic poll­ster re­spected by Repub­li­cans, to con­duct “hard con­ver­sa­tions” around the coun­try, the bet­ter to un­der­stand the mood of a di­vided na­tion.

If the Pitts­burgh group — seven men, five women — was any in­di­ca­tion, hard con­ver­sa­tions around fam­ily supper ta­bles and in gath­er­ing places across the coun­try might re­veal vital dif­fer­ences on pol­icy ques­tions, but also a rough con­sen­sus that Trump’s com­port­ment does not com­port with Amer­i­cans’ views of the pres­i­dency.

“Re­gard­less of what he truly wants to get done ... he has got to be his own worst en­emy,” said Tony Sci­ullo, an In­de­pen­dent who works in the in­sur­ance busi­ness and who voted for Trump but ex­pressed what he called “ab­ject dis­ap­point­ment” in the pres­i­dent.

David Turner, a Repub­li­can in the con­struc­tion busi­ness who voted for Trump, added: “Ev­ery­thing he does is out­ra­geous — ou­tra­geously good, ou­tra­geously bad. There’s no in-be­tween. There’s a lot of things he’s ac­com­plished, but he doesn’t have that soft touch to sell you on what he wants to ac­com­plish.”

And this, from Christina Lees, an In­de­pen­dent who is an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant for a large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany and who voted for Trump: “We know he’s a nut. Ev­ery­body knew he was a nut. ... But there’s a point in time when you have to be­come pro­fes­sional. He’s not pro­fes­sional, for­get about pres­i­den­tial.”

Here in a pocket of a state that Trump won by only a sin­gle per­cent­age point, these vot­ers’ skep­ti­cism of the pres­i­dent was ex­ceeded only by their con­cern for the coun­try.

Hart opened these marathon con­ver­sa­tions by ask­ing the group, as­sem­bled from a broad ge­o­graph­i­cal area in south­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, to share a sin­gle word to de­scribe how they saw Amer­ica right now. The answers were chill­ing: Bad. Chaotic. Em­bar­rass­ing. Down. Shame­ful. Un­cer­tain. Scared. Tense. These were punc­tu­ated by only a hand­ful of op­ti­mistic as­sess­ments: Get­ting bet­ter. Great.

One fo­cus group does not a na­tional sam­ple make. But the ad­van­tage of ses­sions such as these, which Hart has been con­duct­ing for years, is that they give Amer­i­cans the chance to ex­plore their feel­ings rather than to pro­vide an answer on a check­list.

Thus, Joyce Be­vic, a Demo­crat who is an an­a­lyst for a large cor­po­ra­tion and who voted for former Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton, didn’t merely tell a tele­phone ques­tioner that she dis­ap­proved of the pres­i­dent’s record, but was able to ex­plain:

“He’s sup­posed to be such a good busi­ness­man ... but he just barks or­ders at peo­ple. He has no po­lit­i­cal skills what­so­ever.”

Hardly any of the Trump sup­port­ers rose to a vig­or­ous de­fense of the pres­i­dent, though Rus­sell Stitt, a Repub­li­can who is a re­tiree and who voted for Trump, said that the pres­i­dent was “try­ing to make Amer­ica great.”

Hart held a fo­cus group here 14 months ago, just be­fore the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. The guests were dif­fer­ent, but the Trump sup­port­ers con­sid­ered their can­di­date’s per­son­al­ity quirks pos­i­tives rather than neg­a­tives, and they weren’t swayed by dam­ag­ing news re­ports about him.

This group took on a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent tint.

There was none of the op­ti­mism that the Trump sup­port­ers of June 2016 dis­played (though po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates al­most al­ways in­spire more hope as can­di­dates than as of­fice­hold­ers). There also was none of the con­vic­tion that Richard Cor­nelius ex­pressed 14 months ago that a po­lit­i­cal out­sider “could ef­fect change that might be good.”

For the 2017 group there was none of the sense that, in the Trump case, hope would tri­umph over ex­pe­ri­ence. Brian Rush, a Repub­li­can who voted for Trump, char­ac­ter­ized the pres­i­dent as an au­to­mo­bile with “a cou­ple of dents here and there (and) the me­chanic can’t find out what’s wrong.”

Mary Gal­lagher, a Demo­crat who works for a large na­tional in­sur­ance com­pany and who voted for Clin­ton, picked up the theme acidly: “We were told it was go­ing to be a Cadil­lac Es­calade, but in re­al­ity it is a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back, and it’s fall­ing apart.”

All of this stunned Hart, who ex­pected some­thing else en­tirely.

“My mouth was agape at how per­son­ally up­set and dis­ap­pointed with him they were about the thing he said he’d have the eas­i­est time do­ing, which is be­ing ‘pres­i­den­tial,’” Hart said.

“They couldn’t get past his per­sonal be­hav­ior.”

He added: “They were say­ing: ‘This is not what I want my pres­i­dent to be.’”

Some other ob­ser­va­tions: No one in the group men­tioned the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Few among them could iden­tify Robert Mueller, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Rus­sia al­le­ga­tions. Nor did the name of John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, prompt much recog­ni­tion. The evening was con­sumed with Trump.

“Against Hil­lary, he had a per­fect foil — some­body who so many Amer­i­cans had prob­lems with in so many num­bers of ways,” Hart said. “She was seen as not iden­ti­fy­ing with peo­ple, but as look­ing down on peo­ple. As a re­sult, he was seen as the war­rior fight­ing against a bad per­son. At this stage of the game, he rep­re­sents us. He’s sup­posed to be the voice of hope. Ev­ery­one here said, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, that his pres­i­dency was about him, not about us.”

The peo­ple, at least this group, have spo­ken. What was clear, after an evening of their con­ver­sa­tion, is how much all of them — Repub­li­cans and Democrats, Trump sup­port­ers and Trump crit­ics — hope some­one lis­tens, the pres­i­dent es­pe­cially.

David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@post- gazette.com, 412 263- 1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.

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