Focus groups of swing voters have picked up some warning signs for Democrats about Donald Trump’s general election candidacy: While those swing voters are willing to see Trump as a risky, divisive figure, they are not yet prepared to believe the Dem argument that Trump’s policy proposals would benefit the rich, a senior Democratic strategist who has been directly involved in extensive focus groups tells me.
The findings in these focus groups present Democrats with both challenges and opportunities as they prepare for a very harsh general election campaign against Trump. They also may help explain the brutal onslaught of attacks on Trump we’re about to see from Democrats as the primaries wind down and the July conventions approach.
The focus groups were conducted in a range of presidential swing states, and targeted mostly suburban women, but also blue collar women. The findings were described to me by the senior Dem strategist on the condition that he and his affiliation remain anonymous.
The key finding from the focus groups, this Dem strategist told me, is that they revealed a divide in terms of how swing voters currently view Trump when it comes to temperament on the one hand, and policy on the other.
“Focus groups right now show voters are willing to believe that Trump is risky and divisive, but not yet ready to believe that Trump would cut taxes on the rich,” the strategist told me.
“They aren’t ready to think policy as it relates to Trump yet,” the strategist continued. “It’s all wrapped in the politics of personality right now. His policy ideas aren’t defined to them yet — other than the bombastic ones, like building a wall.” That’s a reference to Trump’s promise of a Great Trumpian Wall on the southern border.
In recent days, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has sought to increase scrutiny of Trump’s economic policies. Senior Clinton advisers yesterday held a conference call with reporters, in which they argued that Trump’s tax plan would lavish a huge windfall on the wealthy and blow a massive hole in the deficit, an effort to make the case that Trump’s economic agenda is every bit as reckless and crazy as, well, pretty much everything else about him. On the Sunday shows, Trump tried to confuse the issue by creating the impression that he might be open to raising taxes on the rich, but he ultimately confirmed that, yes, he will indeed cut them.
The question is what swing voters will believe, and these focus groups suggest a good deal of uncertainty among swing voters about where Trump actually stands on the economy, this Dem strategist tells me.
This mirrors what happened in 2012 with Mitt Romney. Early in that campaign, Dem focus groups revealed that voters weren’t prepared to believe that Romney actually would do what his economic agenda called for. The relentless attacks on Romney as a heartless plutocrat and outsourcer were about getting voters to perceive Romney’s personal priorities in a way that made them more willing to accept the truth about his policies.
But this time around, Trump poses a different challenge than Romney did. Whereas Romney was a venture capitalist with an aloof, plutocratic manner who really did fervently support the Paul Ryan makers-versus-takers ideological vision of deep cuts to the safety net, Trump is posing as a kind of Man In The Street’s Billionaire. He brashly boasts about his wealth, openly brags that he has worked the elites’ scam from the inside and is thus the guy best positioned to break up their party, promises to make you and all of America filthy rich along with himself, and doesn’t parrot Republican nostrums about the magic of supply side economics or the need to “reform” entitlements. He rhetorically vows to target hedge funders and people like himself with higher taxes (though as we’ve seen, this is a total scam).
Trump, meanwhile, has all sorts of vulnerabilities that Romney didn’t, having spent months vowing to carry out mass deportations and ban Muslims, insulting women and immigrants, and shouting vulgarities at angry crowds across the country. The Dem focus grouping shows that swing voters are prepared to believe that Trump is a frightening, dangerous figure. But they don’t know where he stands on the economy — which could create an opportunity, allowing Dems to fill in that picture.
And so what we may now see is a two tiered attack. First there may be a relentless focus on the stuff about Trump that voters are currently prepared to accept: His sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, and unfitness to serve as president. This could energize core Dem voting groups (nonwhites, young voters, socially liberal college-educated whites), and perhaps sow further doubts about his temperament with swing voting constituencies (particularly suburban, independent, blue collar, and moderate college-educated women). There may also be an all out assault on the seamy underside of his business record, as is reportedly being worked up.
The question will then be whether all of this — particularly the attack on his business dealings — will lay the groundwork for a successful prosecution of Trump’s economic agenda and worldview. Trump has a very simple economic message: The elites have screwed you with trade deals that have sucked jobs out of the country. He’d bring them roaring back by kicking the asses of other countries, international bureaucrats and elites, CEOs who ship jobs overseas, and immigrants who are eating out of American workers’ lunch buckets.
If this focus grouping is right, the challenge for Democrats, in addition to cranking up core Dem groups, will be to persuade swing voters not just that Trump is wholly unfit for the job, but that he’s also running a massive economic con. Will savaging his temperament and business dealings successfully prime those voters to accept this argument?
Maybe. If that isn’t enough, the Clinton campaign might have to do better at making a broad, affirmative argument on behalf of her economic agenda, one that tries to directly rebut the appeal of the story Trump is telling about the economy. Fortunately, all signs are Democrats are already thinking hard about how to do that, too.