Raised Stakes for the Rising American Electorate in 2016: Report from Focus Groups

The country is in a desperate mood, expressed in the public’s discontent with the direction of country. The anxiety begins with an economy you can’t depend on that produces a struggling middle class, inequality and a growing disparity between rich and poor. It extends to a decline in morals and lack of personal responsibility, pushed by the media, which breeds more drugs and crime. And importantly, it is produced by a toxic political environment. Donald Trump’s victories leave them questioning the country’s values, whether they can trust their neighbors, and what the future holds. It is a dangerous brew that generates impassioned, engaged discussion in focus groups. It has created an election with high stakes.

This memo outlines the findings of four focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps on behalf of WVWVAF and VPC in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio on March 8-9 among segments of the Rising American Electorate: African American women (we included both frequent and less frequent voters), white unmarried millennial women, white unmarried older women, and white non-college unmarried women.

Two story lines emerge from these groups. The financially pressed mostly working class white unmarried and millennial women get past their doubts about Clinton in this context to support a progressive narrative for change. A second story line dominates the African American group where the stakes of the election have suddenly changed dramatically and people process events through a new filter. These stories have increased chances for an engaged and consolidated vote in November. That should produce a major strategic turn in the campaign ahead.

Below are the key findings from these focus groups:

There is deep and sharply defined negativity about the direction of the country and this new definition makes it the key dynamic of the upcoming election. The words these women most commonly use include “sad,” “disappointed,” “frustrated,” and “confused.” Some strong currents in thinking about the economy, society, political economy and this presidential election shape these feelings about the country’s direction.

  • Not new is the perception that the recovery is tentative and its jobs don’t pay enough to live on and don’t allow you to get ahead.
  • People now talk at the same time about a lost middle class and the growing disparity or polarization of wealth between the lower and upper class.  They see a “divided” country and ordinary people coming up with nothing.
  • They are newly conscious and disgusted by the nexus of CEOs, Wall Street and money in politics. That is a “bad mix” and “bad influence.”
  • They seem newly concerned about a decline in morals, focus on the self and irresponsibility that results in drug use and crime.
  • And the intemperate presidential election, particularly the emergence and victories of Donald Trump, has put a big question mark over the direction of the country. They find his tone and views embarrassing and are shocked by the support he is winning for his racist and sexist views.

Hillary Clinton is a positive figure, and those attributes may become more important in a contest with a Donald Trump.

  • She is serious, hardworking, knows what it takes to run the country, understands the issues, and is seen as the most diplomatic of the candidates.
  • They believe Clinton “would be better able to relate to women,” understands the challenges they face as working women and mothers, would bring “a woman’s perspective on important issues.”
  • The main doubts about Clinton concern her trustworthiness, mainly as a result of the pro-longed email ‘scandal.’ But we found two new areas of vulnerability have emerged in the primary and contrast with Trump: the worry that she is tied to special interests and Wall Street and won’t be able to bring change and the concern about the opposition she will face as the first woman president.
  • In light of President Obama and Trump’s attacks, these women voiced a heightened concern about how a female candidate and president will be treated. They have seen how Republicans have treated the first black president. They fear her opponents will prevent her from governing because she is a woman.

In this environment, it should be not surprising that participants favor a message that condemns inequality and vows to level the playing field for the middle class with reforms and progressive policies.

  • The commitment to reform shows this candidate is serious about governing and has a plan for achieving their agenda. These women tend to believe reforming government so taxpayers get their money’s worth is the most important thing to happen, but they also say the system is corrupt and want to see campaigns reformed so big money is out of politics.
  • Policies to help working women are also very important.  They want a president who will ensure equal pay, paid family leave and affordable childcare, which shows “they realize a woman’s role has changed” and “they actually care about women.”
  • A commitment to trade agreements that create American jobs is an important addition to this message. A Trump attack on Clinton’s trade position takes a toll in the groups, so bringing trade into the economic message is a critical new element.
  • Improving the quality of education at all levels is a high priority in each of the groups, and a growing concern compared to past focus groups.  This should become part of the policy agenda in addition to dealing with the cost of college and student debt.

They are watching Donald Trump closely, and they are listening to what he is saying.

  • His business experience is a major argument in his favor. They also find his candor refreshing and it distinguishes him from other politicians. This is integrally related to the fact that he is self-funding his campaign and can speak for himself, not the donors.
  • The women were able to find points of agreement in Trump’s messages, particularly on trade, and acknowledge he is saying some things people are afraid to say on immigration.

But reactions to Trump among these women are deeply negative and concrete.  They fall along three dimensions:

  • They believe he is sexist, racist, intolerant of many groups and religions that make up America, and his effect is divisive. 
  • He is a rude, egotistical bully who has to have his way and cannot work with others.
  • He would hurt America internationally, be too quick to use the military and could not be trusted with nuclear weapons.  

These groups suggest we have to rethink how motivated are these key members of the Rising American Electorate. They now see the stakes in 2016 and why this election matters.

  • For now, these women have been paying the most attention to the circus on the GOP side and less attention to the Democratic primary. They presume Clinton will become the nominee and will pay attention later.
  • Trump’s presence in the race raises the stakes in November. The country, their future, the world is at stake. And they are strongly motivated to vote against Donald Trump in November, and there is good reason to believe their concern is powerful enough to drive turnout for Clinton, even among the handful of Sanders supporters.
  • The African American women in these groups were a mix of high frequency and less frequent voters, but every one of them appeared determined to vote in November no matter the Republican nominee. They say electing a Democrat in 2016 is perhaps more important than re-electing President Obama, and they are also the most enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton.

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