You can look at polls and read news accounts all day long, but the frustration, despair—and, in some cases, rage—among a multitude of Republican voters can be lost in the numbers. Better to let them just talk. Anecdotally, you can chat with friends, relatives, neighbors, cabdrivers, and other regular folks. But the antipathy really comes through when you listen in on Republican voters gathered in focus groups, such as one convened last week in Indianapolis by pollster Peter Hart. Since 2004, Hart has conducted focus groups of voters for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and no one does it better.
The dozen Indiana Republicans, all likely voters, put into context why more than half of the potential participants in GOP primaries and caucuses are currently supporting business magnate Donald Trump, physician Ben Carson, or ex-CEO Carly Fiorina, who still counts as a political novice despite having lost a U.S. Senate race in California. Disaffected voters seem to be yearning for someone who is the antithesis of a traditional politician.
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Which someone? Well, according to opinion polls, that depends—on voters’ social and economic class and religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) and on the candidates’ temperament. Downscale whites, along with some tea party adherents and other populists, tend to gravitate toward Trump. The soft-spoken Carson draws support from women and voters who are somewhat more upscale, white-collar, and religious (who attend church at least weekly). Fiorina’s support is even more upscale and considerably more cerebral, but it’s harder to pin down beyond that.
The common denominator for participants in the focus group: a desire for someone who is untainted by the political process. They see policy expertise and experience in public office as, at a minimum, vastly overrated or—for some participants—downright disqualifying. This is quite a switch for a political party that has traditionally gone for known commodities, for candidates the voters felt they knew and were comfortable with.
“Voters are paying attention and are much more in the process than in previous political years,” Hart and his associate, Corrie Hunt, concluded in an analysis prepared after the focus group, using data from quantitative surveys. Knowledge remains at the “sound bite” level, they reported, but voters’ “awareness and perceptions of the major candidates are still quite formed.”
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Trump remains the pivot point—“the ‘straw that stirs the drink,’ ” as Hart and Hunt put it, “both in this group and among voters overall.” Even so, they said, Trump’s high poll numbers “obscure a sense of concern and uncertainty that these voters voiced about having him as president of the United States. But for now, they are attracted to him like a moth is to a flame.” The candidates’ temperament, the pollsters found, is crucial: “For these participants, Donald Trump feels too strong and divisive, Jeb Bush feels too soft and staid, and currently Ben Carson emerges as a calm and upstanding person they like.” Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina “have broken through and show appeal,” the pollsters added, while John Kasich and Ted Cruz “are on the outskirts.”
In what I thought was their most perceptive conclusion about Republican voters’ state of mind, Hart and Hunt observed: “Behind all of this is a sense that these people have done a better job of figuring out what they are against rather than what they are for. Part of the challenge that emerges for Republicans is that there appears to be nothing positive around which they can unite. Much of this discussion was spent railing against what is wrong rather than searching for a uniting vision of what they want in their nominee. A uniting leader may yet emerge, but for now the consensus is around a quiet man versus
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Part of what is wrong, to these Republicans, is their party’s performance in Congress. “They feel let down by leaders who have failed to take advantage of their majority position and given in far too many times to a president they see as overstepping his authority,” the pollsters reported. “These primary voters have lost patience with current Republican leaders who they believe have failed to unite the party and work together to achieve real results.”
And so, the belief takes hold—in the political establishment, at least—that conservative commentators and opinion leaders have raised unrealistic expectations about what can be done in Washington without filibuster- and veto-proof Republican majorities in Congress—or control of the White House. Complicated issues get dumbed down.
“We’re sick of career politicians,” said a woman in the focus group who supports Trump, and “we’re out to clean house.” Another woman, a Carson backer, said that politicians “don’t keep their word. Their morals are loose. They don’t have values. We’re just tired of them. We’re ready for someone who has not been in that role.”
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