Last week my pre-midterm focus group tour of the US took us to two competitive districts in the Midwest – in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The outcome in both places will help determine which party controls Congress after the elections on 6 November.
Two current political stories had captured the attention of the voters we spoke to, the first being the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. What did they make of it?
“They’re lying through their teeth. And he [President Trump] is backing them up.” What had the President said, exactly? “The latest one was it sounded fishy, but before that he truly believed them because they said they didn’t do it. Obviously if I said I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it”.
Some thought there was more to Trump’s position than simple credulity: “There’s a history there, and relationships… You just can’t pull the plug because one person got killed, bad as it was. You can have a knee-jerk reaction and say OK, that’s it, we’re cutting off the relationship.”
The other event was the thousands-strong migrant caravan making its way from Honduras to the American border. Trump has responded by threatening to cut off aid to the country unless it is turned around, to close the US-Mexican border and even deploy the military to prevent the migrants entering the United States.
For the Democrats we spoke to in Iowa, this was a question of America’s founding principles, as embodied by “the chick in the habour” at Ellis Island. “Give us your tired, your poor. They’re coming here.” For them, the President’s response was also impractical: “I don’t think we can tell other countries what to do with these people. I mean that’s not for us to tell them how to handle these people.”
This was a minority view among our participants, however. If Trump’s reaction was tough, “I think they’ve left us no choice.” The law had to be enforced: “I’m all for somebody coming here. But you’ve got to do it the right way. Don’t just jump the fence or swim the river, just do the right way. That’s what I like about Trump. He questions what’s going on.”
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This willingness to act, coupled with what they regarded as the fresh approach of a non-politician, remained one of the most attractive things about the President among those who had voted for him: “For decades now have watched as we have had the same exact debates over and over again and the same solutions are brought up over and over again. And so to me, I feel like we need some different people in office in leadership in this country. I feel like the old guard has had its chance and has failed to really deliver on anything and I was willing to throw anybody in there that wouldn’t just follow the same pattern as everyone else;”
“I think he’s trying to change things with just how politics themselves are being done. And the thing that I like the most – I don’t agree with everything he’s done and I don’t necessarily like him as a person. But what I do appreciate is that he has called out a lot of the things that have bothered me for a long time and he’s being honest about them;” “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that we’re going to be successful and I’m going to have a job from day to day.”
It was notable, however, that views about the President among those who had voted for him having backed Obama in 2010 were more mixed than among Trump supporters as a whole: “I don’t think I’m getting the change. I think there has been change. But it seems like the country’s more divided than it was;” “Certain things he does are good. But he opens his mouth and then it goes downhill. But also as an average American I’m not seeing the help of a gas pump I’m seeing gas prices rising. I’m continuing to see him to kind of isolate us more from the world – it just seems like we’re getting more and more isolated from everybody else.”
The same was true in our group of suburban women who had voted Republican for Congress in 2016 but only reluctantly voted for Trump, if at all: “I find it annoying to listen to him because it just goes on and on and on. But has he accomplished some things, yes I think he has. But he’s kind of like an annoying child that you just want to say, OK stop talking now. You’ve done this. So just stop talking. He has accomplished some things, he’s talked about the borders. You know he has hit some high points but he’s just annoying.”
How did they feel about the way he talked about women? “I think it’s completely inappropriate and hard to listen to;” “I was discussing this with my young adult children. I never want to hear something like that or have them treat other people like that;” “I find it difficult, because I find him pretty repulsive in many ways but at the same time I appreciate the job he’s doing so I’m really torn down the middle because of his attitude. Kind of like that relative that comes over Christmas time has too many drinks and he’s all over you and you’re like, I’ll just put up with you because you’re my husband’s brother.”
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Yet when it came to next month’s elections, Trump was more of a factor for his strongest supporters and opponents: others were more inclined to look at local candidates and their position on issues they cared about: “I want a Governor that can work with the federal government and develop relationships with them. They are a complete opposite ends of the spectrum nothing’s going to get done;” “I think it’s more about does he care about who he represents;” “I’m going to take a look at the candidates and decide who I’m going to vote for I because Trump is already president. So I’m not really even thinking about him.”
However, for some Republican leaners the idea of stalemate after a Democratic takeover was something to consider: “Nothing would get done. Their first priority would be to remove Kavanaugh and get rid of Trump. So we’d be at a stalemate for two more years getting nothing, getting nowhere, paying for people to do nothing but fight and bicker.”
Despite the talk of a “blue wave” in November, not all our Democrats were very confident of victory, especially given what happened two years ago: “Everyone I know right now, we feel so powerless and so we don’t feel like our vote matters. I don’t know how big blue wave is going to be. I think a lot of people at this point don’t think it matters because you know what, it really didn’t – Hillary won the popular vote.”
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Iowa’s caucuses provide the first test for presidential hopefuls, and the verdict of the Democrats in our groups could give a candidate crucial momentum. What direction did they want to see their party take?
“I think the Democrats are far too moderate, at least for a lot of the younger crowd. The Democrats feel like the middle ground now and that’s a that’s a bad thing.” A centrist candidate “would just be considered just as you said establishment and just and wouldn’t draw out the voters.” In fact, they were not shy of using the S-word: “I think people need to see there’s a lot of examples of socialism – anything public, the highway system. Things they don’t realise they are actually participating in;” “throw a dart at a lot of other countries that are actually doing well.”
Still, some conceded the need for electability: “Someone who seems more stable than Bernie Sanders who has more name recognition, but isn’t like crazy out there so people think, oh that’s a wacky liberal;” “they’ve got to win over at least some of these independents.”
Republicans thought a successful primary challenge to the President was extremely unlikely even if they thought it desirable, as some of them did. However, even some of these said that after Donald Trump they would now have a hard time trusting anyone who seemed like a politician: “Look I would much rather you know get some of the character good Christian you know something like Mike Pence or somebody like that much rather have a polished president. Yeah but I just have a lot of trouble trusting folks that present that kind of image anymore.”
Subscribe to the Ashcroft in America podcast to hear focus group extracts and analysis, as well as Lord Ashcroft’s interviews with figures including Steve Hilton, Christine Todd Whitman, Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.