With each crisis of the young Trump administration, reporters and pollsters have documented the steady support he continues to get from his most ardent backers, the roughly one in four Americans who consistently tell pollsters that they approve of his performance in office, agree with him on most issues and like his personality.
Tuesday night at a focus group in Pittsburgh, a group of reporters heard from a different slice of Trump voters — ones he’s lost for now.
“Outrageous,” “disappointed,” “not ready” were among the adjectives that focus group members tossed out when asked for a single word to describe the president — and those were from the participants who had voted for him.
“He has got to be his own worst enemy,” said Tony Sciullo, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident and a registered independent who works for an insurance agency and described Trump as an “abject disappointment.”
“He’s such an incredibly flawed individual who has articulated so many of the values that I hold dear,” Sciullo said, adding that he almost wished Trump were on the other side of the political divide because of the damage he sees him doing to conservative causes.
Brian Rush, a registered Republican who works as a sales representative, voiced a slightly more supportive view.
“I’m still going to hold off judgment,” he said. “I’m hoping things can turn around.”
Trump “does want this country to be great,” Rush said. He likened the administration to a once-new car that now has several dents and is “not running the way it should” while the mechanics “don’t know exactly why.”
Focus groups such as this one, which was conducted by veteran pollster Peter D. Hart as part of a project for Emory University, aren’t polls; they provide insights into how people are thinking, not into how large a particular group may be. This group, which reporters could view remotely, included a dozen people — five who voted for Trump, six for Hillary Clinton and one who voted for neither. None of the five Trump voters said they currently approve of the president.
Numerous public polls provide insights into how common such views are.
Fewer deflated Trump voters exist than hard-core Trump backers: Most of those who voted for the president last year remain behind him. But the disappointed voters nonetheless could be critical in the future. Trump won each of the three states that provided his margin of victory — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — by less than a percentage point. He carried Pennsylvania by just over 44,000 votes out of some 6 million cast.
By comparison, the share of self-identified Republicans who say they approve of Trump’s performance in office has dropped by about 10 percentage points, from the high 80% range to the high 70% range, since he took office, according to averages of publicly available polling. A significant slide in his approval among Republicans has occurred since early July, coinciding with the Senate’s rejection last month of measures to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s controversial comments this month about the violence surrounding neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.
That still gives Trump a big majority within his party — enough to intimidate some GOP elected officials. But presidents in the polarized political environment of the last few decades usually can count on support from 90% or more of their fellow partisans. That was true for President Obama and for President George W. Bush for most of their tenures.
A recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that about one in five self-identified Republicans said they don’t like the way Trump “conducts himself as president” while about half said they had mixed feelings, and about one-third said they liked what he does. Asked about his specific positions, roughly three in 10 Republicans said they agreed with Trump on only a few (22%) or no (8%) issues. Pew conducted the survey among 1,893 adults nationwide, Aug. 15 to 21; the margin of error is 2.9 percentage points in either direction.
Both the polling data and the focus group indicate that the way voters react to Trump’s behavior and personality, not his positions on particular issues, drives the way they feel about him. A second Pew survey asked both Trump supporters and opponents what they liked and disliked about him. On both sides, his personality dominated the results.
Among those who approved of Trump’s performance in office, for example, about half listed aspects of his personality when asked what they liked about him. Only about one in eight cited a specific policy position.
Among those who disapproved of Trump’s job performance, an even smaller share, 7%, mentioned specific policies, But nearly six in 10 said they disliked everything about him.
That survey was conducted online, using a panel of 4,971 adults chosen to reflect the demographics of the U.S. population; it has an estimated sampling error of 2.3 percentage points in either direction.
For both sides, Trump’s use of Twitter has come to symbolize several aspects of his behavior — his pugnacity and willingness to quarrel with those he perceives as having slighted him; his tendency to blurt out what’s on his mind, even if that might hurt his long-term objectives; and his unwillingness to be controlled by his handlers.
To many of his supporters, those traits indicate authenticity and Trump’s willingness to take on the political establishment. To critics, including those within his own party, that same behavior conveys a sense of indiscipline and chaos they find troubling.
“He apparently has a lot of time on his hands,” Christina Lees, a registered independent who was one of the focus group’s Trump voters, said when asked about his Twitter habit. He needs some restraint, she said.
“His tweeting is for his own ego,” said David Turner, a Republican and another of the disaffected Trump voters. “His learning curve has been a little disappointing.”
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