Opinion writer
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Donald Trump answered questions on national security and foreign policy Sept. 7 during a "commander-in-chief forum" on NBC News. (Video: NBC News/Photos: Melina Mara/Post, Mike Segar/Reuters)

The group gathered around the table was made up of exactly the sort of voters that Donald Trump might have made inroads among — suburban white women, a mix of mostly “soft” Democrats and a few Republicans and independents. If Trump is going to close the gap with Hillary Clinton in certain key battlegrounds, he may have to win back at least a small slice of the voters in this category that he appears to have alienated, though there may be other paths for him.

But in a focus group organized by veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in a suburb of Philadelphia last night, a group of these voters appeared entirely closed off to reconsidering Trump, describing him and his public statements in the harshest of terms: Liar. Narcissist. Egotist. Racist.

However, the focus group — which I was permitted to observe — also offered some good news for Republicans who hope to hold the Senate, should Trump lose. Most if not all of the women — who were deliberately picked because they are “ticket splitters,” i.e. their presidential vote doesn’t necessarily determine their down-ballot choices — saw vulnerable incumbent Senator Pat Toomey as independent of Trump, and more broadly, thought of Trump as non-representative of Republicans in general.

Here are six times Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has insulted women, from Rosie O'Donnell to Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi. (Sarah Parnass and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Greenberg convened this focus group — on behalf of Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund — to gauge evolving attitudes toward Trump and Clinton among white suburban women who say they will vote for Clinton but are not committed partisan Democrats. The goal was also to determine whether evolving opposition to Trump is translating into a vote against Republicans down the ticket.

The stakes in the battle for these voters may be particularly high in Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign itself views this state as crucial to his most likely path to victory. Last spring, politicos in both parties began noting that Trump might put this blue-leaning state in play by making surprise inroads in counties outside Philadelphia. But the Los Angeles Times recently reported that polling showed suburban women around Philadelphia were gravitating toward Clinton, blunting Trump’s chances of pulling that off.

This dynamic was very much on display among the women I watched last night in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. None seemed like hardcore partisans. A few had not voted for Barack Obama in 2012. The education level was mixed (some had graduated college, others not) and they held jobs like administrator, medical technician, and events coordinator.

 

Antipathy toward Trump runs deep

What was particularly striking was how deeply negative views of Trump’s character and temperament had taken hold. Several described him as a narcissist or an egotist, with one claiming “his entire campaign is just about his ego.” One described his statements as “racist.” One said he had “tapped into” a “climate of hatred.” One described him flatly as a “joke.” One referenced his “reality TV” candidacy. When concerns were raised about his temperament, there was broad agreement around the table. Some even seemed uncertain about his business acumen, with one mentioning his bankruptcies.

“These ought to be voters that a Republican candidate is making headway with,” Greenberg tells me. “He’s a business oriented candidate who is thinking anew about the Republican Party. But these voters are closed off to him. I’ve never seen ticket-splitters as locked in on the presidential level. They aren’t partisans. They aren’t ideological. These voters, you would expect to erode. But they are so firm in their determination to vote against Trump or for Hillary.”

Some of these voters also made it clear that their support for Clinton is equivocal, which suggests Trump might have had a shot at them. There were multiple concerns about her aired: One referenced “the email thing,” adding: “I don’t know what’s up with that.” One vaguely referenced the aura of “scandal” around Clinton, without apparent knowledge of the specifics. One questioned whether her marriage to Bill Clinton was rooted in political convenience, adding that this made her wonder whether she is being “sincere” in other areas.

Many did say many positive things about Clinton, describing her as a “good role model,” “diplomatic,” “smart, fair and experienced,” and willing to “work with diverse groups.” Some talked with some excitement about the historic possibility of a first female president, and there was obvious awareness and respect for Clinton’s career, accomplishments, and experience. But one seemed to generate some agreement when she said Clinton was the “lesser of two evils, but I will not vote for that other person.”

“They see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Page Gardner, the head of Women’s Voices Women Vote, tells me. “Trump is closed off to them.” Gardner adds: “They’re very clear about her qualifications. They’re excited about the election in general. But there is still a little bit of holding back around some of the negative issues that have been raised about her. And it’s a constant narrative.”

 

These voters don’t blame the GOP for Trump

Their attitude toward the Republican Party and Trump is complicated. On the one hand, some understood that Congressional Republicans had done everything possible to obstruct Obama throughout his whole presidency, and they were very frustrated by the resulting gridlock. Some said harshly negative things about the GOP in general, noting Republican opposition to a women’s right to choose and GOP policies that favor the wealthy. But they were reluctant to blame the GOP for Trump’s rise or to see Toomey through a Trumpian prism. Some noted that many Republicans had not endorsed Trump. Others noted specifically that Toomey has not backed him, either, and that seemed to mean a lot to them. Indeed, one sentiment I heard expressed was that as long as GOP officials didn’t endorse Trump, they deserved to be evaluated as independent of him.

Meanwhile, none of the above attitudes toward Trump means that he can’t win. There are still plenty of undecided voters out there. Trump might find another path by defying everyone’s expectations of what can be accomplished in driving up his vote share and turnout among non-college whites, though that seems improbable. He might pull off a miraculous transformation at the debates, perhaps even getting suburban women such as these to take another look at him. But if he does lose, their seemingly-locked-in antipathy to him right now — something that appears to be true of majorities of college-educated whites across the country — may help explain why.