2016 Elections

These Grumpy Voters Prefer None of the Above

A North Carolina focus group accentuates the negative and eliminates the positive.

At least they shook hands.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

One question put to a dozen “persuadable voters” in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday night didn’t elicit a single response: Which presidential candidate do you like? Another, though, produced a unanimous show of hands: Do you dislike both?

The voters had been assembled by Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who has led focus groups for decades. He termed the session, conducted for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, “unbelievably negative.”

QuickTake Perils of Polling

The participants were chosen to represent the small group of voters who remain undecided or open to persuasion just two weeks before Election Day. “They watch these two candidates and find little or nothing on which to commend them,” Hart said.

There’s negativity toward the end of any hard-fought election campaign. At this juncture in 1980, though, undecided voters would have debated the virtues and shortcomings of Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter, as they would have with Barack Obama or John McCain in 2008. The Charlotte voters, all of whom indicated that they expected to vote, found no virtues to debate.

I’ve covered 12 presidential campaigns and attended Hart-run focus groups dating back to 1979. This was the most negative one I’ve ever seen.

These voters didn’t fit the caricature of the angry, mean-spirited populist. They were reasonably content with their lives, though not so optimistic about the next generation. 

It was the campaign, not the country, that unsettled them. Take Donna Ryan, a retired financial employee and Ronald Reagan fan who started out open to Donald Trump.

“I wanted a non-politician,” she said, but the Republican nominee “lost me.”

I’m afraid of Trump,” Ryan added, saying that he throws “temper tantrums like a little boy.” She said she’s now leaning toward Clinton, whom she doesn’t trust, as “the lesser of two evils.”

Hart’s voters described Trump as a “spoiled brat,” “bully” and “embarrassment.” Clinton was called a “slimy liar.”

They characterized the tone and substance of the campaign as depressing.

“The message is ‘Vote for me because I’m less of a sleazeball,’” said one of them, Gary Nesbitt. Another, Tracy Poole, said the contest called to mind a 1979 boxing movie. “It reminds me of ‘Rocky II,’ people slugging it out, and what’s it for?” she said.

There were more Republicans than Democrats on the panel, though none thought of themselves as strongly partisan. That was bad news for Trump. Like Ryan, Jennifer Meador, a Republican homemaker, started in the Trump camp until the candidate's tawdry behavior turned her off. “He’s just an embarrassment to the country,” Meador said.

Only one substantive issue was mentioned as something that could drive a choice on Nov. 8: the appointment of new justices to the Supreme Court. That would give Trump an edge among several conservative panelists.

Only one panelist was attracted by the nostalgic echoes of Trump's slogan, “Make America Great Again.” That was J.R. Arsenault, a 64-year-old photographic illustrator who said he longed for the “Americana” of his youth, as depicted in the sitcom “Ozzie and Harriet.”

The possibility of the first woman president didn’t move these citizens. And in a city that has been roiled by racial tension recently, only two said race relations were a major issue in the U.S. Both were African-Americans.

Despite some sharp criticisms from a few of the more conservative panelists, Obama is ending his presidency on a high note with these voters. “He comes across as an admirable figure,” Hart said.

Obama’s wife, Michelle, drew unanimous high praise. “Michelle is the superstar beyond superstars this year,” Hart said. “She provides the moral center for election.”

Even the participants who said they’re likely to vote for Clinton harbor deep reservations. Raising the controversy over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state, the panelist Sabrina Tucker asked, “If she lies about this, what else will she lie about?”

At end, all 12 participants said they expected Clinton to win. None expressed enthusiasm at the prospect, which, Hart said, gives little reason for optimism about her ability to unite the country as president.

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:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

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

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