PITTSBURGH, PA -- Donald Trump’s Rust Belt base isn’t ready to stop believing.
The Republican nominee’s campaign is beset by infighting, organizational mayhem, paltry fundraising and daily controversies. But, according to a focus group of working class voters here, his White House bid remains a source of optimism among the blue-collar workers whose support he desperately needs to remain competitive in the fall.
“For now, despite all the gaffes and missteps, this group of blue-collar voters find reasons to support him and dismiss the criticisms or feel he may grow into the job,” said moderator Peter Hart, who conducted the focus group on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “These are hard times for these people who are at the bottom rungs of the ladder and only want to hold on.”
The group of 11 voters – including six who support Trump, four who back Hillary Clinton and one who is weighing both Trump and independent Gary Johnson – described their view of a political novice whose draconian positions on immigration and terrorism could fortify a country that they feel has become destabilized and vulnerable. His backers argued that his constant controversies merely display his personal confidence as a successful businessman and his refreshing disregard of judgment by elites.
“We’ve been lied to for so long “ said Glenda, a 42-year-old 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 there either.”
Seven of the participants - including several Clinton backers – said they agreed with Trump’s plan to block Muslim immigration, although none expressed confidence that he would be able to execute his plan. Most of those same individuals expressed support for Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“He just makes me feel very comfortable and safe,” said Cherie, a 48-year-old hairstylist who describes herself as an independent. “And I like to listen to him, I think he has common sense. He speaks my language, just the way he is.”
Participants of all political stripes bluntly acknowledged Trump’s flaws –- a pair of avid supporters described him as “childish” and “hot under the collar” — but also lauded Trump’s bombast as a sign that he “speaks his mind.”
“He’s unapologetic, which I think is kinda nice because it’s a change from these dirty politicians,” said Dara, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom who conceded that she worried about Trump’s “temper.”
“Politicians say 'shhhhhh, don’t say that, Donald,'" joked Fred, a 53 year-old African American security guard who gives Trump a 10 percent chance of ultimately winning his support. “He’s like, ‘I don’t care!’”
Unmentioned throughout the discussion was the recent fracas over Trump’s charge of unfair treatment by a federal judge with “Mexican heritage.”
Danyale, a homemaker who is African American, charged early in the session that Trump “comes off to me as a racist” and gave Trump no chance of winning her support. By the end of the session, she praised his deportation and Muslim ban proposals and elevated the probability that she will vote for him to 50 percent.
Heads nodded in agreement around the room when Richard, a 54-year-old lab technician and Trump supporter, suggested that the real estate mogul is capable of growing into the job.
“Hillary’s been in the government a long time and her husband’s been in there, so she really has a lot of knowledge,” he acknowledged. “Trump’s learning curve will be steeper but I think he’ll still be able to do it. Like, give him six months, and he will, hopefully.”
And for those conservatives with deep reservations about Trump’s demeanor and lack of experience, he’s better than the alternative.
“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, “ said Megan, a 32-year-old homemaker. But, she quickly added, “Hillary’s off the table. He’s the only one I have left.”
While these working-class voters said they faced economic challenges and saw little hope for future generations, most expressed relatively warm feelings towards the current president, describing him as family-oriented and reform-minded.
And a variety of participants in the group offered unprompted praise of former president Bill Clinton.But any enthusiasm for the two Democratic presidents had a dim afterglow for the woman who hopes to succeed them.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters described her as steady and competent, although their choices of words reflected little personal zeal towards the candidate. Words used to describe her ranged from “stable” and “experienced” to “grandma” and “disappointing.”
While most nodded to Clinton’s experience and readiness for the job, even several of the voters favorable to the former secretary of state said she had failed to address the issues that are most important to them.
“I just realized that she doesn’t see the big picture right now, and we need to focus on real life stuff,” said Glenda, one of more than half of the participants who said at the end of the discussion that their confidence in Trump had improved during the course of the two-hour session.
Megan, the Trump skeptic who will nonetheless back him over Clinton, agreed that the Democratic nominee’s agenda misses the issues that animate most voters like her.
“You’re not as directly affected by the things that she’s addressing as you are by the things that he is,” she said. “I think he just connects with more people.”