I convened two focus groups of six voters each last week to ask the following question: “Imagine the Republican party—the totality of the party—was a person, just one person. What characteristics would this person have?”
I was not asking them to describe any particular person, but rather to “pretend that the attributes you associate with the Republican party were encapsulated in one person.”
The answers these Trump-Biden voters gave were interesting, and may shed light on how four years of Donald Trump have affected perceptions of the party. The first group was composed of five independents and one Democrat. Their responses were:
The second group contained three Republicans, two independents, and one libertarian. Their responses were:
- Fiercely loyal
- Fiscally conservative
- More extreme
Of a total 23 listed traits, 16 were negative; the rest were either neutral or positive. Not a great batting average if you’re a party that hasn’t won a national plurality since 2004, and needs to add voters to your coalition.
I can remember conducting focus groups with moderate voters nearly a decade ago, posing the same question, and hearing adjectives such as “old,” “rich,” “white,” and “male” to describe typical Republicans. I don’t think the new adjectives represent an improvement in terms of selling the party to voters.
And how about Democrats? How were they perceived by these same Trump-Biden voters? In the first session (5 independents, 1 Democrat) they offered these responses when asked to describe the Democratic party:
- Globally aware
- Accepting of other humans
- Diverse in interests
- Racially/gender diverse
In the second group (3 Republicans, 2 independents, 1 libertarian) I heard:
- Critical of ideas / of things they don’t like
- Underdogs / Uncomfortable in the majority
- Spend a lot / not fiscally conservative
Just 8 of these 19 traits were clearly negative, with the rest neutral or positive.
Yes, this is just one small sample. But the overall sense of the people involved was pretty clear: While they didn’t necessarily love the typical Democrat, the Trump-Biden voters were largely negative about the typical Republican.
I also asked both groups a question comparing Andrew Cuomo’s situation to Donald Trump’s. All of the respondents were familiar with the allegations against Cuomo, even though none live in New York. What I wanted to know is this: Why do they think Republican leaders stick with Trump, while Democratic leaders are throwing Cuomo under the bus? There were a variety of responses, none of which reflected well on the GOP.
“Republicans are fiercely loyal, to their detriment,” observed Edward, a 50-year-old from Grayson, Georgia.
“I also think there was a lot of fear involved. Trump put a lot of fear in people,” said Phyllis, a 60-year-old from Clermont, Florida.
“They fear Trump quite literally,” said Janet, a 64-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona. “His fingers are very long, and he can make life very difficult for them in the political arena. . . . I think the Democrats just don’t want anybody who’s going to embarrass them. They don’t want to appear like they’re weak. And Cuomo makes them appear that way.”
Kimberly, 48, from Cave Creek, Arizona, said: “I think the moral compass in the Democratic party is different than the Republican party.”
And Connie, 53, from Traverse City, Michigan, concluded, “I think that [with] the Republicans, their main and primary focus is to keep other Republicans in power, regardless of the indiscretions or the issues at hand to them. It’s about power, not about transparency and truth.”
Finally, I asked the two groups which party occupies the moral high ground when comparing the Trump and Cuomo situations.
In one session, all six respondents said it’s the Democrats who took the more moral position by abandoning Cuomo. In the other session, all six thought Democrats have the moral upper hand by the way they generally behave within the party, as compared to Republicans.
If Republican and Democratic officeholders aren’t listening carefully to these swing voters, they should be.