PITTSBURGH — Take a dozen people of wildly disparate views from a battleground state, put them together with one of the top public-opinion experts in the country, close the door for more than two hours and fortify them only with teeny eight-ounce bottles of water — and the result is utterly unpredictable.
That’s what happened here Tuesday night, where — a surprise to all! — a civil conversation broke out. There was emotion, to be sure. There were strong feelings, of course. But there was also searing and searching conversation — and, though partisan differences persisted, there were some clear, sober warnings for President Trump.
The Democrats who were skeptical of him before the election remain so. The Independents and Republicans who backed him showed their own skepticism — skepticism tinged with disappointment. Together they expressed worries about the country. On occasion — rarely, but sometimes — it was even hard to tell the Trump voters from the Trump critics.
This was a focus group, not a scientific poll. Emory University in Atlanta has asked Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster respected by Republicans, to conduct “hard conversations” around the country, the better to understand the mood of a divided nation. If the Pittsburgh group — seven men, five women — was any indication, hard conversations around family supper tables and in gathering places across the country might reveal vital differences on policy questions, but also a rough consensus that Mr. Trump’s comportment does not comport with Americans’ views of the presidency.
“Regardless of what he truly wants to get done ... he has got to be his own worst enemy,” said Tony Sciullo, an Independent who works in the insurance business and who voted for Mr. Trump but expressed what he called “abject disappointment” in the President. David Turner, a Republican in the construction business who voted for Mr. Trump, added: “Everything he does is outrageous — outrageously good, outrageously bad. There’s no in-between. There’s a lot of things he’s accomplished but he doesn’t have that soft touch to sell you on what he wants to accomplish.”
And this, from Christina Lees, an Independent who is an administrative assistant for a large pharmaceutical company and who voted for Mr. Trump: “We know he’s a nut. Everybody knew he was a nut. ... But there’s a point in time when you have to become professional. He’s not professional, forget about presidential.”
Here in a pocket of a state that Mr. Trump won by only a single percentage point, these voters’ skepticism of the President was exceeded only by their concern for the country.
Mr. Hart opened these marathon conversations by asking the group, assembled from a broad geographical area in southwestern Pennsylvania, to share a single word to describe how they saw America right now. The answers were chilling: Bad. Chaotic. Embarrassing. Down. Shameful. Uncertain. Scared. Tense. These were punctuated by only a handful of optimistic assessments: Getting better. Great.
One focus group does not a national sample make. But the advantage of sessions such as these, which Mr. Hart has been conducting for years, is that they give Americans the chance to explore their feelings rather than to provide an answer on a checklist. Thus Joyce Bevic, a Democrat who is an analyst for a large corporation and who voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, didn’t merely tell a telephone questioner that she disapproved of the President’s record but was able to explain: “He’s supposed to be such a good businessman ... but he just barks orders at people. He has no political skills whatsoever.”
Hardly any of the Trump supporters rose to a vigorous defense of the President, though Russell Stitt, a Republican who is a retiree and who voted for Mr. Trump, said that the President was “trying to make America great.”
Mr. Hart held a focus group here 14 months ago, just before the Republican National Convention. The guests were different, but the Trump supporters considered their candidate’s personality quirks positives rather than negatives, and they weren’t swayed by damaging news reports about him.
This group took on a distinctly different tint. There was none of the optimism that the Trump supporters of June, 2016, displayed, though political candidates almost always produce more hope as candidates than as officeholders. There also was none of the conviction that Richard Cornelius expressed 14 months ago that a political outsider “could effect change that might be good.”
For the 2017 group there was none of the sense that in the Trump case, hope would triumph over experience. Brian Rush, a Republican who voted for Mr. Trump, characterized the President as an automobile with “a couple of dents here and there [and] the mechanic can’t find out what’s wrong.”
Mary Gallagher, a Democrat who works for a large national insurance company and who voted for Mrs. Clinton, picked up the theme acidly: “We were told it was going to be a Cadillac Escalante but in reality it is a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back, and it’s falling apart.”
All of this stunned Mr. Hart, who expected something else entirely.
“My mouth was agape at how personally upset and disappointed with him about the thing he said he’d have the easiest time doing, which is being ‘presidential,’ “ Mr. Hart said. “They couldn’t get past his personal behavior.”
He added: “They were saying: ‘This is not what I want my president to be.’”
Some other observations: No one in the group mentioned the Russia investigations. Few among them could identify Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Russia allegations. Nor did the name of John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, prompt much recognition. The evening was consumed with Donald Trump.
“Against Hillary, he had a perfect foil — somebody who so many Americans had problems with in so many numbers of ways,” Mr. Hart said. “She was seen as not identifying with people but as looking down on people. As a result, he was seen as the warrior fighting against a bad person. At this stage of the game, he represents us. He’s supposed to be the voice of hope. Everyone here said, directly or indirectly, that his presidency was about him, not about us.”
The people, at least this group, have spoken. What was clear, after an evening of their conversation, is how much all of them — Republicans and Democrats, Trump supporters and Trump critics — hope someone listens, the president especially.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: email@example.com.
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