Focus group.

Photographer: Branden Camp/Getty Images

These Swing Voters Have Swung. To Trump.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Swing voters tend to be low-information voters. But when veteran pollster Peter Hart convened a group of 11 "blue-collar and economically struggling" voters from suburban Pittsburgh on Tuesday, in research for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, it seemed that Donald Trump's campaign messages had pierced the fog.

"He speaks my language," said one participant in the more than two-hour discussion expertly guided by Hart.

A majority of the group favored a temporary ban on immigration by Muslims, though one participant did point out that there is no way to discern who is, and is not, a Muslim. A slightly slimmer majority supported building a wall on the Mexican border, and plenty of hands also went up to support deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., though a barrage of qualifications soon followed, suggesting few were eager to see the theory of deportation rendered into reality.

On the whole, the group gave the impression of citizens at sea, troubled by the economy, frustrated by politics and unclear exactly what powers are shaping their world and to what end.

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is not an obscure political figure. But upon hearing his name, none could identify him. One participant shared the opinion that a Trump administration would be "opening up some trade and getting things flowing," a interesting conclusion to draw from a campaign focused on walls, tariffs and threats leveled at trading partners and corporate outsourcing.

Another volunteered that Trump "doesn't come off as a liar," though the news of the past month has featured an avalanche of details of Trump falsehoods and sleaze. Indeed, Trump's quotidian dishonesty is simply unprecedented in modern presidential politics.

Speaking of Hillary Clinton's ambitions, one woman said, "I don't think women and men are equal." She doubted that Clinton, on that count, was up to the masculine demands of the presidency. Others chimed in with their own concerns about Clinton's womanhood, citing "emotions" in one case, and the challenges of the "male arena" of politics in another.

There were two blacks seated around the table, which may or may not have inhibited a couple Trump partisans. It was remarkable to hear a 48-year-old hair stylist, identified as "undecided" on paper but an ardent Trump supporter throughout the session, longing for the return of 1950s America while seated next to a black man. In that halcyon age, he might have been lynched in some regions just for looking at her.

"Such happy times," she said dreamily. "So many less worries."

It's one of the marvels of American democracy that the voters who often decide close elections are those who pay the least attention to the contest or consequences. Yet somehow or other, the mass of individual decisions leads in a given direction, and mostly things turn out alright.

June is still very early in the election cycle for casual voters who don't spend their mornings scouring Roll Call and the Hill. It's not surprising that the group lacked information. What they had instead were instincts -- mostly, though not entirely, pointing in Trump's direction.

Whether Trump transforms those instincts into votes depends in part on the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Clinton and her allies appear likely to be well funded. Pennsylvania is a battleground state. By November, this group of voters may have seen many dozens of pro-Clinton television ads filling in the details of Trump's less savory business practices.

Trump, who delivered a blistering speech denouncing Clinton on Wednesday, will probably retain the support of some of these voters -- through high water and worse. Others may be peeled away without a compelling counter-argument from Trump's campaign. Having just reported a paltry total of a million bucks in his campaign account, while continuing to bob and weave about whether he will ever actually self-fund, as he said he would, Trump is offering no guarantees that he is capable of exploiting his opening.

If Clinton has her way, millions of low-information voters will be much better informed by November. Information is not on Trump's side.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net