Trump backers test how to eke out a post-impeachment victory

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President Donald Trump. | Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

“It’s a waste of money.” “To say you don’t support it means you don’t think any president should be investigated for any problems.” “I’m not a Trump supporter by all means, but I totally disagree with what they’re doing.”

Those were among the reactions to the first week of public impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump when a group of swing voters agreed to provide their candid feedback to a pollster in Pittsburgh last Thursday. Their responses came during one of 18 focus groups conducted by America First Action since late October, when the Trump-anointed super PAC began soliciting input from habitual voters in battleground states who are still deciding whether they will support the president’s reelection or back his eventual Democratic opponent.

They’re part of a series of events designed to help the pro-Trump group assess the president’s vulnerabilities and opportunities. The super PAC’s leaders are trying to identify where Trump is lost beyond repair among swing voters — and how to develop messaging to help him eke out a victory after likely becoming only the third U.S. president to be impeached.

Each of the focus groups — held in Iowa, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — included 10 to 12 registered voters with mixed educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. A group in Phoenix featured only suburban women, while separate groups in Orlando were limited to seniors and suburban men. Forty-seven percent of participants voted for Trump in 2016, while 49 percent supported his then-Democratic rival Hillary Clinton or third-party alternatives, according to Wes Anderson, a Republican strategist who ran the focus groups along with former Trump campaign pollster Adam Geller.

The results of the focus groups were shared by an America First official on Monday. They were conducted as congressional Democrats and Republicans sell competing narratives related to impeachment in the hopes of capturing voters who remain deeply divided over the process itself. A new NPR/PBS poll released Tuesday, for instance, found that independents are evenly split — 45 to 45 — over whether the evidence presented so far makes them more or less likely to favor impeachment.

Some participants supported the president, but turned out for Democratic congressional candidates in last year’s midterm elections. Others voted blue in the previous four elections, but are so dissatisfied with the current 2020 Democratic field they could see themselves supporting Trump.

“We screened out people who said, ‘I am committed to voting for the Democrat’ or ‘I am committed to voting for Trump,’” Anderson said in an interview.

In a focus group conducted after House Democrats took their impeachment inquiry public, participants were asked if they thought Trump should be impeached. Not a single person raised their hand, including a woman who later expressed broad disgust with the president’s behavior. (A POLITICO reporter viewed video clips and readouts that were pre-selected from more than 30 hours of footage gathered from the sessions — including some that contained anti-Trump comments from participants, who were all disclosed only with first names and last initials.)

“I don’t like everything that he says. I think he’s an ass. I think he can be a sexist. I think he degrades women in how he talks to them, and African Americans, and everyone else. But at least he’s being up front with us,” said Jennifer S., a Clinton voter from Pennsylvania.

Others described the impeachment process as “a waste of time” or too complicated to digest. Two people in the Pittsburgh group perceived impeachment as an admission by Democrats that their party lacks electable candidates heading into the 2020 presidential contest. (So far, match-up polls have found a mix of potential outcomes in states Trump carried when he first ran for office.)

“If they were confident their eventual candidate could beat Trump in 2020 … why would they be doing this a year out from the 2020 election?” asked Adam K., who backed Trump in 2016.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of stuff that I do not agree with around Donald Trump, but at the same time … I feel as though the Democratic party — none of the people who are running are strong enough to take him on. That’s the problem,” said Tosha L., another Clinton voter.

One member of the all-women group in Phoenix said Trump should be investigated “if he did a legitimately corrupt thing,” but lamented the closed-door hearings that preceded the public phase of impeachment.

“If there’s something there, they need to put it out in the open,” said another participant in a focus group conducted before witnesses began testifying publicly as part of the impeachment probe.

While impeachment was brought up in each of the 18 focus groups, participants — many of whom were described as low-information voters with a rudimentary understanding of political affairs — were decidedly more interested in discussing policy matters and the 2020 horse race.

“I’m hearing people who love Trump saying, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I should be voting for Elizabeth Warren.’ She’s very vocal, she’s very opinionated. She has a way of drawing people in,” said one participant in an all-woman group.

“Tulsi Gabbard,” responded a woman named Brianna, when her group was asked who they view as the most competitive Democratic presidential hopeful. “She’s her own person. There isn’t a huge amount of difference from one candidate to another, with the exception of her.”

Some participants described former Vice President Joe Biden, whose edge over his Democratic primary opponents has waned in recent weeks, as competitive against Trump. But others voiced concerns about the 76-year-old’s age and ability to excite voters.

“I think one of the reasons why [Biden] is leading is because the Democratic Party is so divided on what they want and he’s the most recognizable name to them,” said a woman named Tiffani.

“I don’t want to sound ageist, but I think he’s just too old. Like just go have a seat, man. Live your life,” said an African American man.

When participants were asked to weigh in on Trump, one clear theme emerged: the substance of his presidency was far more palatable than his governing style. It’s a trend consistently captured in polling of the 2020 race — particularly among suburban women who have recoiled at the president’s inflammatory race-related rhetoric, coarse language and trademark bravado — and one that his campaign team is no longer attempting to conceal.

“We recognize that 11 months out from the election, we are not going to get these voters to think that the president is a teddy bear,” said the America First official, adding that the super PAC’s goal is not “to rehab the president’s image.”

Instead of making next year’s election a personality contest, the president’s political team plans to overwhelm critical swing voters and independents with information about both his accomplishments and the positions embraced by the Democratic primary field.

“It’s going to be substance over style and we believe on the substance points, it’s a clear winner and that will overcome the president’s style,” the official said.

As America First tests that strategy in the coming months, one of the core demographics it plans to target are so-called “hidden Trump voters” in suburban areas — some of whom surfaced in the focus groups and described their reluctance to speak positively about the president in front of friends and strangers for fear of social costs.

“I don’t have a Trump sticker on my car because I’m not stupid. I don’t want to get my car scratched,” said a woman in the Phoenix group.

“You have to be very careful who you disclose your political views to and it shouldn’t be that way,” said another.

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