CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—“I want you to raise your hand if this describes you,” Peter Hart, the legendary Democratic pollster, instructed a room of 12 undecided North Carolina voters Tuesday night. “I like both candidates.” Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he meant.
The attendees were sitting around a square table formation in an observation room, where their names were handwritten on folded pieces of pink, yellow, or blue construction paper at their seats. It resembled a private party room at a Chuck E. Cheese’s or a bowling alley, except with adults instead of children, paper handouts instead of pizza, and a low hum of existential dread instead of joy and laughter.
“Anybody fall into that category?” Hart asked.
Zero hands went up.
“OK,” he continued. “I like one candidate.”
“I don’t like either candidate.”
Every hand went up.
It was a cheery way to kick off a two-hour focus group, which Hart would later describe to reporters as “unbelievably negative” and among the worst he’s seen in his 50-odd years of measuring public opinion.
The group Hart selected for this research project, conducted on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, was largely middle class, educated, and Republican-leaning—the kind of voters whom a generic Republican candidate, after eight years of a Democratic presidential administration and in a state that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, would have already secured by now.* Three described themselves as Democrats, six as Republicans, and three as independents; nine listed their ideology as “moderate,” while three were “somewhat conservative.” Five considered their political hero to be Ronald Reagan, while another two—the younger lean-conservatives in the room—pointed to George W. Bush. This would have been a 9-to-3 or 10-to-2 room for Republican presidential nominee John Kasich. Instead it was four reluctant Clinton-leaners; five gun-to-the-head, I-guess-for-the–Supreme Court Trumpers, and three who may well have mental breakdowns when they enter the voting booth on Nov. 8.
They will enter the voting booth, though. “I have to,” said Gary Nesbitt, a 68-year-old moderate Republican banking consultant and probably the purest undecided of the group. “Otherwise, I can’t complain.”
In a healthy election year, late-stage undecideds would be in that position because they’re political moderates still weighing the pros and cons of each candidate’s policy positions. Such a dynamic seems like a quaint, unrealistic piece of historical fiction now, even if it was basically the dynamic governing elections as recent as Romney versus Barack Obama. With two wildly unpopular candidates this cycle, candidates who by nature of their baked-in unpopularity have run campaigns of personal destruction against their opponent, it’s natural that these undecideds would frame the decision as a matter of which contemptible personage they could tolerate for four years.
None saw any aspect of the election as anywhere near edifying. Jennifer Meador, a 48-year-old homemaker, described the election as “embarrassing for our country,” while Katie Burak, a 30-year-old financial planner, said she’s seen nothing but “personal attacks” this year. Donna Ryan, a 57-year-old retired finance director, said, “It’s embarrassing all the—pardon my French—it’s embarrassing all the bullshit that’s going on.” Meador added that she has a 13-year-old son and doesn’t know how to talk to him about this election: “It’s hard to explain why adults are acting this way.” The dominant theme of the election, as Nesbitt put it, was “vote for me because I’m less of a sleazeball.”
With policy considerations seemingly at such a remove from the national discussion, they saw the election as part of a broader cultural malaise. Terry Ragsdale, a 62-year-old IT worker, saw the country as still unable to grapple with the negative events that began with 9/11. “Osama did what he sought to do”—sending the country into disarray—“and we’ve never quite recovered.” Several, including Burak, 35-year-old welding technician Jon Johnson, and 47-year old banking analyst Sabrina Tucker, were deeply worried about Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tearing apart the social and political fabric of the republic. When Hart asked whether the next generation would be better off than the previous, no hands went up.
Though the group had no love for Trump beyond the more conservative members’ hope that he could preserve their Supreme Court advantage, they spoke of the “old days” through a similarly rosy prism. They missed the “innocence” of a time when negative news didn’t dominate public life. The clearest analogue to a Trumplike statement came from Ryan, who described her brother’s experience in Catholic schools of the “old days,” when nuns would slap his hands for acting out of order. “I’m not defending corporal punishment,” she prefaced, “but there’s something to be said for getting your hand slapped.”
Ryan was leaning toward voting for Clinton. She wasn’t happy about it. A moderate, Ryan had wanted to find an excuse to vote for Trump. “I so much wanted Trump. I so much wanted a nonpolitician. But I don’t trust him, and I’ve become afraid of him,” she said. “I just don’t think he knows when to shut up. If he could just [say], ‘I’m a businessman, I’m not a politician, I’m gonna make American great again,’ and stop right there, then I would vote for him.” During Trump’s postconvention meltdown, though, she would watch as he “just went on and on, and his face [would get] all red.” The face reminded her of a “little boy,” like her five brothers growing up. “I remember that face. And that’s when I got scared. And so I started to listen to Clinton. I don’t love Clinton—I don’t trust her. But I think she’s the lesser of two evils.”
The imagery of the red-faced little boy dominated one “lightning round” section of the group, when members were asked to fill in the blank on the question of “[Candidate]’s behavior reminds me of ______.” For Trump, the answers included several “school boys,” a “spoiled brat,” “child having a tantrum,” “rich kid,” and “George Brett with the pine tar.”
But the descriptors for Clinton weren’t any better: “robotic,” multiple “liar”s and one “liar liar pants on fire,” “maleficent,” “privileged,” “too poised,” “polished politician,” and “cool operator.” When Hart asked what they thought motivated her, “power” and “ambition” were the dominant responses.
For the Clinton-leaners and the pure undecideds who couldn’t see themselves voting for Trump, the choice came down to competence. “She knows what she’s doing,” Ragsdale said, “so I’m going to have to lean that way.” The Trump-leaners held onto the Supreme Court as their best excuse.
The last question Hart asked after more than two hours of questions was who everyone thought would win the election. It was unanimous for Clinton.
Hart was a good-humored host. He cracked jokes in the room to ease the tension. When one panelist suggested that the polls may be off, he mocked offense, saying, “I beg your pardon.” (Hart co-conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.) He kept a running banter with a select few participants. Some levity was necessary in that room.
Afterward, though, he admitted that he too was struck by the salty, surly, despairing negativity in the room. He saw Ryan and a couple of other undecideds, who with any other GOP standard-bearer would be with the Republican and against Clinton, as the election in a nutshell. Even if Trump-leaners may have narrowly outnumbered Clinton-leaners on the panel, that wasn’t a bad result for a Republican-leaning sample. Ryan “never came to Hillary; she was forced to Hillary,” Hart said, and voters like her are the reason Clinton is likely to both win the election and suffer from an extremely difficult presidency. “She’s got the votes,” he added, “she’s just not going to have the support.”
I was struck by Hart’s cynical take on how Clinton herself would have viewed a focus group like this, where not one participant could admit to liking her but where several said they would reluctantly vote for her. Hart believed Clinton would have seen this as a “success”: She had achieved the goal of making her opponent look worse than her to enough people in order to win the election. Clinton’s the type of person who can take a task that’s right in front of her, he said, and execute it, but the broader vision either isn’t there or is never clearly relayed to the public. “If the job was to get elected president, she did it,” he said, “or she’s going to do it.” And after that, what?
Update, Oct. 27, 2016: This sentence was updated to include additional information on the research project. (Return.)