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Fractured GOP Base Frets Over Trump's Style But Weighs Cost of Disunity

A GOP focus group showed a significant chunk of the GOP base is turned off by Trump but the anxieties are outweighed by fears of a Clinton presidency.
Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Trump speaks at town hall campaign event in Hickory, North Carolina
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall campaign event in Hickory, North Carolina. March 14, 2016. CHRIS KEANE / Reuters

St. Louis, Mo. -- Donald Trump has created a gaping chasm in the Republican base over questions of his rhetoric and his behavior, but it's mainly the GOP front-runner's style -- not his substance -- that divides his most passionate supporters from his most uneasy detractors within the party.

A focus group of Republicans conducted outside of St. Louis on Tuesday showed that while a significant chunk of the GOP base unhesitatingly calls Trump unpresidential, disrespectful and boorish, their anxieties over Trump's demeanor are outweighed by their fears of a Hillary Clinton presidency. And a majority of Trump backers and foes alike in the group conceded - largely with shrugs -- that his pledges to build a Southern border wall and deport the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are plainly unfeasible and merely meant to convey strength on controversial issues.

"The base is totally divided. The only thing they're united on is they're against Hillary Clinton," said pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "At the same time, most of these voters are not rooting against him, they're rooting for him. A lot of them are saying that if he gives them an opportunity to accept him, they will accept him."

The group, which consisted of five Trump backers and seven Republican or GOP-leaning independents not currently backing him, offered a litany of words to describe the GOP front-runner that ranged from "strong” and "refreshing" to "disrespectful" and "a jerk."

But only one of the 12 said they would absolutely not consider supporting Trump in a general election. All 12 participants said they would never vote for Clinton, who universally earned labels like "criminal," "dishonest" and "evil."

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Regardless of their view of the party's front-runner, participants said that Trump needs to "dial it back" if he hopes to win over voters and eventually succeed in the Oval Office.

"If he would be president, he's representing the United States. He needs to show some dignity and have a presence about him that's respectable," said 48 year-old Cherri Crenshaw, an independent who is supporting Ted Cruz. "I don't want it to become a joke."

"As a teacher, a parent and a grandparent, I think you need a social filter," Cruz supporter Joyce Reinitz pleaded, referring to Trump.

“I don’t think he’s a good choice,” said another Cruz fan, Aron Smith, 45. “I think he’s a better choice than Hillary, but I don’t think he’s a good choice to be the Republican candidate. I don’t think he plays well with others … I just don’t think he is presidential quality.”

"He's an egomaniac, even though I love him," said 59 year-old Trump voter Steve Berman. "It's, like, his way or the high way. He's gonna have a problem dealing with Congress."

“Be firm, but not obnoxious,” advised Kevin Rotellio, 44, who says he will not vote for any candidate except for Trump.

Eight of the twelve participants said they did not believe Trump would build a huge wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the same number said he would not be able to deport the nation's entire population of undocumented immigrants. But Trump's fans also did not seem deterred by the unlikeliness that his signature plans will come to fruition, chalking up much of his demeanor to his deal-making background.

Few participants raised major flags about Trump's inexperience with foreign affairs, his lack of background in the workings of government or his overall policy prescriptions for the nation. And while many worried about his ability to unite the country or heal racial divisions, majorities within the group suggested that his skill set would be well suited to confront the threat of ISIS or prevent a reprise of the 2013 government shutdown. "He’s not afraid to do the unpopular thing," said Trump supporter Jeremy Seavey, 37.

About accusations that Trump is “outspoken and harsh,” Joe Glass, who voted for Kasich in past week’s primary, said that Trump’s demeanor could match that of U.S. rivals on the global stage.

“Isn’t Putin the same way?” asked Glass. “He seems to be doing okay."

Half of the group - including his more ardent fans - called Trump's "charisma" a possible liability, suggesting that his cult of personality is hardly guaranteed to foster a positive environment in the country.

“'Charisma' and ‘positive' aren't always the same thing," said Gail Capelovitch, a Trump backer who admires the candidate's business background and leadership style. "Hitler was charismatic, and he didn't create a positive environment."

Throughout the two-hour session, participants in the focus group described Trump's appeal as a nod to "the disaffected" in the country, a populace infuriated by congressional gridlock and an administration that Republicans see as directionless and weak -- particularly when it comes to how the nation is seen around the globe.

"You had the New Deal with FDR," said Capelovitch. "I think that [with] the disaffected, what we're seeing today is the Raw Deal."

Anthony Casalone, who backed Cruz in last week's primary, said that Republican despair in the wake of the Obama years has made Trump a beacon for voters casting about for new direction.

"People are definitely not happy with where things are at," he said. "And so they're hoping - and I'm not saying Trump is the right answer, and I didn't vote for him in the primary - but I think people are so frustrated, and he's tapped into that frustration." "It's gotten to the point that this looks like a good option."