"Everyone in Washington wants to write that this election is over," cautions respected pollster Peter D. Hart, that Republican Donald Trump — after six weeks of highly public unforced errors — has effectively shattered his chances of winning the White House. Hart, after conducting a two-hour focus group of 11 blue-collar and service industry voters in the Pittsburgh area Tuesday night, had news for the press and for his fellow Democrats who are now so overwhelmingly overconfident: "This 2016 election is still very much ahead of us."
These Pittsburgh voters (six of whom support Trump, four of whom favor Democrat Hillary Clinton and one of whom is undecided between Trump and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor) make $50,000 or less a year and struggle daily in an unwelcoming economy. In the words of Dara Held, 40, who is self-employed selling purses and jewelry, their "middle class is left out, sort of a stepchild." Optimism is scarce; only three in the group believe that their children will be better off than they are.
A political focus group — in this case a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — is intended to capture the idiom of voters, to hear how they express their feelings and their ambivalence. It does not, unlike a national poll of a thousand people, offer a statistically reliable snapshot of the nation. What a focus group provides are the color, nuance and context of how voters feel.
Though the chattering class may have already written Trump's presidential obituary, these Pittsburgh voters — just one of whom, a 27-year-old self-employed web designer and Clinton supporter, is a college graduate — are in no way writing him off. Trump's verbal missteps, so often ill-considered and rude, were seen in the focus group as strengths instead of drawbacks. "We've been lied to so long," said Glenda Taylor, 42, a bartender. "So what, he doesn't want Muslims, per se, that are terrorists in the country? Then I'm glad he's saying it, because I don't want them in here, either." Brian Easter, a 37-year-old limo driver who leans to Clinton, added: "Exactly what we need. He's more honest and doesn't care if he's going to hurt the next person's feelings."
Trump's bluntness also appeals to 48-year-old hairdresser Cherie Spena, who noted that "it's almost as if he's real and the people in the past were cartoon characters."
When Hart mentioned the fact that Trump, if elected, would be the first U.S. president with no military and no governmental experience, homemaker Megan Carpenter, 32, said: "I don't understand how you're commander in chief with no experience under you. It just doesn't make sense. Like, I wouldn't go tomorrow and lead a law firm." But Carpenter still backs Trump: "Hillary's off the table. He's the only one I have left."
Even with her supporters in the room — such as homemaker Danyale Victor, 45, who is African-American — Clinton inspires minimal passion. In fact, Victor expressed reservations about Clinton's gender in the highest office, adding, "I don't think she can run the country."
In Pittsburgh in June, Trump is still connecting personally and emotionally with the kind of voters whose support he will need to become the first Republican presidential nominee since 1988 to carry Pennsylvania. Clinton's biggest asset remains her experience. Sadly for Democrats, experience by itself is only the equivalent of a pair of deuces in poker — rarely a winning hand.
In Peter Hart's considered judgment, the 2016 election is still very much in front of us.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.