BROOKFIELD, Wis. — For a small group of undecided voters here, the presidential choices this year are bleak: Democrat Hillary Clinton is a “liar” with a lifetime of political skulduggery and a ruthless agenda for power, while Republican Donald Trump is your “drunk uncle” who can’t be trusted to listen even to the good advice he’s paying for.
Describing the election as a cesspool, 12 swing voters participating in a focus group last week in this battleground state were deeply negative about both candidates, starkly describing their choice this year as one between a candidate they loathe (Clinton) and one they fear (Trump).
Clinton was described as untrustworthy even by people who are leaning toward voting for her. Although 11 of the 12 predicted she will win, the ambivalence or outright distaste for the Democratic candidate was a dominant and recurring theme in a two-hour discussion in this Milwaukee suburb.
Trump was described as a bully, an egomaniac, a lion in the zoo, proud of his luxuriant mane. Even among those leaning toward voting for him, more than one participant criticized his lack of a filter — and more than one questioned the value of his boardroom experience.
“I’m choosing what I feel is the lesser of two evils,” said Dara Schneider, a 47-year-old recruiter and Clinton supporter who, like most others answering questions posed by pollster Peter D. Hart, rues her choices this year.
All of the participants had voted for both a Democrat and Republican for president some time over the past 16 years. They were invited to participate in Thursday’s focus group as part of an ongoing examination of swing voters this year conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Both candidates have serious flaws, said Sheri LaValley, a 51-year-old compliance analyst who voted for President Obama.
“Hillary with her emails, I just don’t trust her. Trump, the way he acts. Every day you turn on the TV, and I just shake my head,” LaValley said. “I think he would be an awesome candidate if he could get his personality under control.”
Few of the participants described themselves as proud to back either candidate.
“Both have baggage, but I think Hillary has less,” said Daniel Waffenschmidt, 61, a retired restaurant owner.
Asked to rate Clinton on competence, the participants mostly gave her six and above on a scale of 10. On trustworthiness, the group scored her no higher than six, with several ratings of one or two.
David Locher gave Clinton a two.
“I feel like she’s a career politician. That takes with it a certain amount of doing what you have to do to survive,” said the 34-year-old bus transportation supervisor, who voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 but backed Republicans in 2008 and 2012.
Clinton’s potential to make history as the first woman to become president of the United States was unimportant to all but her strongest backer in the group, a 44-year-old preschool teacher.
“We tell our daughters they can be anything they choose to be in the United States,” Timothy Jones said. “This shows we mean it.”
Jones, the lone African American in the group, voted for Obama twice and also for George W. Bush twice.
The group returned several times to the issue of Clinton’s use of a private email server for her government work as secretary of state, and to the general issue of whether she can be trusted.
“Liar” was the most common word selected by participants asked to give a one-word assessment.
“She’s a smart woman with a lot of experience,” but there are too many questions about Clinton’s priorities, said Beth Gramling, 50, a payroll analyst whose recent voting history matched Jones’s. “You can’t trust her. The trust to know between right and wrong, and integrity. I don’t think that she has that, and it’s a shame.”
Older women, a bedrock of Clinton’s support nationally, were among her harshest critics in this group.
Barbara Kass, 62, questioned Clinton’s motives in staying with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, after he humiliated her by having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“What are you thinking?” Kass said, incredulous. “From that point on, I say, ‘I see your agenda, and it’s to have some political power,’ ” said Kass, a retired airline employee turned tour guide.
Trump’s soft support in solidly Republican towns and suburbs outside Milwaukee was evident among the voters ranging from 27 to 63 and including a mix of self-identified Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Steve Watson, a 35-year-old retail operations manager who was among the firmest Trump supporters, still described himself as “apprehensive.”
“We know Donald Trump has good intentions, that he can fix the country,” Watson said. “But he has to understand that this isn’t a boardroom. Everything he says as a candidate for the American presidency is taken and it can be construed a thousand different ways.”
Participants called the business executive reckless, inexperienced and mouthy, a potential threat to U.S. stature and influence abroad. Nearly all condemned statements Trump has made about a Mexican American judge and a Muslim mother whose son, a U.S. soldier, died in Iraq.
Trump’s ratings on competence ranged from one to eight, as did his ratings on trust. He was described as an iconoclast who wants to work outside a broken political system and try something different. His tough line on immigration was popular with several participants, as was his anti-terrorism stance.
Trump hires smart or experienced advisers but then ignores them, said Mike Naunheim, a 27-year-old software engineer who voted for Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008 and Obama in 2012. “I don’t trust someone who doesn’t listen to his advisers.”
Locher gave Trump an eight rating for trust, or maybe for truth in advertising.
“He’s a bully and a loud-mouth, but at least you know that’s what he is,” Locher said. “I’m not saying I like it or agree with it, but what you see is what you get.”
Kass said Trump miscalculated by calling Clinton a “bigot” last week.
The discussion took place as Trump has sought to soften some of his rough edges as a candidate, including telegraphing a potential compromise on his signature promise to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Trump also is making a direct appeal to black and Hispanic voters, arguing that historical support for Democrats has not helped those demographic groups.
Domestic concerns far outweighed international issues as priorities for the group this year, although several mentioned the threat of the Islamic State and homegrown terrorism.
When the group was asked to rate how things are going for the country on a scale of minus-10 to plus-10, the lowest rating was a minus-six, and the highest was a plus-five. Eight of the 12 people predicted that conditions for the country will worsen.
Four of the participants said they are seriously considering voting for a third-party candidate.
The group was drawn from across the racially divided Milwaukee area, but the discussion touched only briefly on the city’s recent racial unrest.
Asked to name one piece of recent “good news,” Naunheim cited a woman “handing out cookies” as a sign of goodwill around the neighborhood where a 23-year-old black suspect was shot during a police chase.
The focus group took place in Waukesha County amid a suburban landscape of malls and office parks. The median household income is about $75,000 in overwhelmingly white and heavily Republican Brookfield.
Trump campaigned Aug. 16 in similarly white West Bend, about 30 miles to the north, where he referred to the Milwaukee shooting and pledged to restore “law and order.”
Wisconsin is in a loose grouping of swing states this year — less competitive than battleground Ohio, Florida and Michigan but important for Trump if he is to piece together a winning map through the South and industrial Midwest.
In the latest statewide polling, Marquette University Law School found Clinton ahead by 15 percentage points, 52 percent to 37 percent, in a survey of likely voters conducted the first week of August.
Statewide, 19 percent said they are undecided or won’t vote for either major party candidate, Marquette pollster Charles Franklin said.