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The final round of our American research tour takes us to two districts in California, one in prosperous Orange County and another further north around the city of Fresno. This is usually thought of as a heavily Democratic state, but the Republicans are defending crucial districts here that could decide whether they keep control of Congress this week. These include districts which elected Republican Congressmen two years ago, but chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for President. How they choose this time will help determine the balance of power in Washington.

The migrant caravan making its way to the US from Honduras continues to loom large in voters’ minds as they began to make their minds up. Our groups’ reaction was a combination of sympathy for the families leaving their countries in search of a better life, and resolve that America’s borders – including California’s – had the be protected and the law enforced: “For me it’s really a hard story, because I understand how difficult their lives are in the country they’re coming from, because their government doesn’t protect them. There aren’t jobs, they are in fear for their children’s lives, and so I have compassion for them. But at the same time there are people all over the world who don’t have that access. They don’t have that border to cross.”

“I’m an immigrant. I came here the legal way, and I worked my way to college education to be where I’m standing. It’s really heartbreaking. You hate to see people suffer, but laws have to be upheld.”

“I think the idea that anybody can come here without any legalities really undermines our foundation as a country.”

Though most supported the President’s decision to deploy troops to the border, many were uneasy about the potential consequences: “they’re going to try to hold them so they don’t cross, and something’s going to happen and there will be physical violence;”

“I do think we need to have some sort of protection, but it’s just I feel like it’s going to get out of hand.”

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By the nature of the districts we visited, many of our participants leaned Republican but had voted only very reluctantly for Trump, if they had done so at all (“I always thought he was kind of a pompous ass… But there really wasn’t anyone else and we were kind of stuck.”

Most had been put off by his antics rather than anything to do with policy – but while no-one liked his behaviour any more than they did two years ago, several felt he has turned out to be a more effective President than they had feared.

“I was like, really, we have to pick between these two? Oh gosh. But honestly, I’m kind of pleasantly surprised. His mouth needs some work, we knew that. That may even be worse than what I thought it would be. But as far as what he’s actually doing, I’m pleased.”

“I think it’s good that the Koreas are starting to talk. They’ve always been separate since I could remember because the Korean war predates me and I’m old, so that’s nice. That’s something I thought we’d never see.”

Those who had been pleasantly surprised often mentioned the economy: “I got to be honest about it. I had no intention of voting for him because I thought he was a joke. But being a blue collar worker, being a construction worker, for commercial drivers the work has tripled for me since he’s been in office. So for me, OK maybe Trump is immature and he’s definitely not a politician, he’s a businessman. Maybe that’s what we needed.”

“It’s his administration. The government doesn’t create jobs unless they’re building new departments and things of that nature. But it’s obvious that our business sector is fairly comfortable with the climate that is currently within the United States, and they are the ones that are putting jobs in place there.”

Not everyone was impressed, however: “Disrespecting the German woman. I mean she’s a woman, and I’m sure he doesn’t like the fact that she’s in power. Our U.K. allies, they’ve been our allies forever and he’s completely disrespectful of the Queen and the parliament. And it’s just mind-boggling to me that there’s no respect for anything, he just thinks he’s better than everyone.”

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Despite his dominance of the national political scene, Trump himself was hardly a consideration for most of our participants when it came to deciding how to vote this week. For one thing, most did not see him and the Republican party as the same thing: “He’s just his own kind of guy. I wouldn’t put a bad name to the whole Republican party just because of one person.”

Though who will control Congress is a consideration, the bigger one for our groups is the quality of their local candidates, and how they stand on the issues that mattered to them: “I’m looking for who seems to be the best person for the position, whether that be Republican or Democrat. I just want somebody – the most honest person, I know that sounds insane when we’re talking about politics but, you know, I have a certain way that I live my life with morals and standards. And I kind of expect the same out of my politicians to some degree.”

“I’m one of these people that is a registered Republican, but I like to base it on whoever is the candidate, rather than Democrat or Republican. I mean I really hate it when you say: are you going to go blue or red?”

“If I was voting on a generic ballot I would vote one way. Does Trump influence that generic ballot? Yes. But my actual vote in this congressional race – I have problems with both candidates.”

Most expected stalemate in the event that the Democrats take the House, rather than any real change. Politicians seemed to have lost the art of getting together to work things out: “Just like we’re doing right here, this roundtable were doing here. That’s what they need to do over there. You need to take this podcast and show it to them and say: “this is the way you to do things, so you guys can collaborate and get your ideas together. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Well, it is rocket science to some people unfortunately.”

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Since I was in the area, I dropped in on the legendary Democratic campaign strategist Bob Shrum, at the University of Southern California where he is now Professor of Practical Politics. Did he think there was any risk that a good result for his party this November would make them complacent for the bigger contest in 2020?

“I don’t think after 2016 that there is the slightest chance that Democrats will ever again assume a presidential election is in the bag – at least those who were alive in 2016. I was on a show here on showtime called The Circus with Mike Murphy, who is my co-director here at the Centre for the Political Future – a Republican strategist, a longtime friend of mine, we campaigned against each other but we like each other. And I said, and he concurred, that no way no how, in no universe, not this one or an alternative one, could Trump be President the United States. I don’t think people are ever going to get that complacent again.”

Hillary Clinton could have won, he thinks, if she had chosen a different nominee for Vice President: “If she had picked Bernie Sanders – look at the three states we’re talking about, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania – she won Pennsylvania, she lost Michigan, she lost Wisconsin to him in the primaries. She might very well have won. So I think that there were a lot of things that went wrong in that campaign.”

“But most fundamentally Trump won the message war. You can have all the bells and whistles in the world, you can have all the data analytics in the world, you can have all the targeting and organisation in the world. But if you lose the message war you’re likely to lose the election. And Trump had a very simple message: “Make America Great Again – we’re not great now”. And the problem is immigration and I’m going to stop the immigrants. And the problem is foreign trade, and I’m going to take care of that too. And everybody knew it. You know Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “Stronger Together”, was not about her. It was actually a hidden negative critique or a coded negative critique of him. So she didn’t have a real economic message that got conveyed to voters.”

What direction would the party be taking – are Democrats yearning to go in a more liberal direction? “My own sense is that Democrats are going to be pretty pragmatic in 2020, that they’re going to ask a fundamental question, and that fundamental question is going to be: who has the best chance to beat Trump? And I think that’s where the party will ultimately settle in terms of a nominee.

But when you’re looking at 20, 22, 23 people who want to run forPpresident, you’re looking at a process that could be quite unique. I mean, the Republicans had to divide their debates into two parts. Last time, they had the big people’s debate and then they had the kids table. That could happen with Democrats too.”

Even so, if one candidate picked up early momentum it could be over sooner than people expect: “The other thing that will be interesting is to see whether or not one candidate can win both Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s only happened twice. When it happens, the process tends to collapse toward that candidate… It’s possible that everybody’s going to run around saying “oh my God, there are so many candidates, this process is going to take so long, it’s going to be so expensive, it’s so draining…. But it’s possible, just barely possible, that it could get over pretty fast.”

Listen to Lord Ashcroft’s interviews with Bob Shrum, John Kasich and others – as well as extracts and analysis from his pre-election focus groups, on the Ashcroft in America podcast.

5 comments for: Lord Ashcroft: “I was like, we must pick one of these? But I’m pleasantly surprised.” My pre-election focus groups from California.

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