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Some 2016 Trump Voters Are Changing Their Minds In Upcoming Election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As President Trump resumed rallies this week, he made this appeal to a group that his campaign sees as crucial to his reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Suburban women, will you please like me?

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Remember? Please, please - I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?

SIMON: But so far, Trump's pleas haven't persuaded the majority of women in suburbs and small cities. A new poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist finds him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden. Thirty-four percent of these women support Trump; 64% support Joe Biden. It also finds a small percentage of voters who are even persuadable. Just 5% say they're undecided or they support a candidate but might vote differently.

Sarah Longwell has been conducting focus groups of Trump supporters the past few years. She's a Republican strategist and founder of Republican Voters Against Trump. They've been posting testimonials from people who do not support the president for reelection. Sarah Longwell joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

SARAH LONGWELL: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And I gather the purpose of your focus groups is to get a better understanding of voters who helped Donald Trump get into the White House but are considered soft now.

LONGWELL: Yeah. Well, I started doing the groups back in 2018 because I was very interested in understanding the dynamics of voters going on in my own party. You know, I didn't understand how we had nominated Donald Trump. I didn't understand how he had been elected. I didn't understand why a plurality of white women even had supported him. And so I started to do the focus groups just because I was genuinely searching for an understanding. But at this point, I've done about 50 of them. And I've done some with men, I've done some with third-party voters, but primarily I've zeroed in on women because they were the demographic that was most quickly turning on the president. I call them either reluctant Trump supporters, or typically when we screen for them, they rate him as doing a very bad job or a somewhat bad job. So these are people who voted for him but aren't very happy with the job he's doing.

SIMON: You checked in with a lot of these voters after the debate, after the president's diagnosis for the coronavirus. What did you find out?

LONGWELL: Well, it's been interesting. You know, I've sort of watched the president alienate these voters in real time. Back, let's say, during impeachment, a lot of them didn't like the president very much. They thought he was a narcissist. They thought he was a bully. But they also thought the economy was doing well and that the media was too hard on him. It didn't give him enough credit for the things that he'd done well.

But everything changed after the coronavirus hit. There's just a difference between, you know, these sort of foreign policy things that are abstract to people's lives versus something that is personally impacting them. And when you had the health crisis on top of the economic crisis and then on top of the racial crisis, I just saw people really start to move away from him because while they didn't necessarily blame him for the pandemic or the economic crisis, they blamed him for making things worse.

And then it was interesting - the debate was when I heard a number of these women say that they'd closed the door on even potentially voting for him again because they had tuned into the debate because they genuinely wanted answers. They didn't get that, right? What they saw was somebody who was constantly interrupting and yelling and seemed, you know, to be candid, kind of maniacal. And so in this last group that I did - it was the same night that Donald Trump made that appeal in the clip that you played - not a single person in the focus group was planning on voting for him again in 2020.

SIMON: It sounds like they're telling you that they don't necessarily blame him for the multitude of crises which we are in, but they don't think he's the man for the moment.

LONGWELL: That's right. You know, one of the things that always strikes me - and it sort of gets missed, I think, sometimes in the horse-race politics of it - is that people are really, really hurting right now. Whenever I open the focus groups and I say to people, hey, how do you think the country is doing? You know, they tell you about what's going on with them personally - about their small business closing, about how they couldn't be with a parent when they died, about having a terminally ill child and having all this upheaval around health and health care, about, you know, having been in remission from chemo and being so frustrated by people not wearing masks and then feeling like they can't go to the store. And when the president talks about, just to take an example, Hunter Biden's hard drive, that is not speaking to what people are dealing with in their lives right now. And in some ways, sort of why some of what Trump did, let's say, around Ukraine didn't really move them back then, again, now, the conspiracy theories and all of the crazy stuff - what they want is a plan.

SIMON: What about the president's Supreme Court pick?

LONGWELL: It's barely breaking through with the voters that I've talked to. There was one group that I talked to right after Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away. And I had convened the focus group, and people were very exercised about the fact that Donald Trump had just recently refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. That's what they were focused on. Nobody even organically brought up the Supreme Court. Now, I had thought, being a conservative and knowing how much the court can animate conservatives, that this would be something that might really bring people home. But to the extent that people were engaged in it at all or invested in it at all - one woman told me, look; if I get the Supreme Court justice, it just gives me another reason I don't have to vote for him again in 2020 because I'll have gotten what I need out of him.

SIMON: A little over two weeks to go before the election, although millions of people have voted already. Where do you see the future of your party?

LONGWELL: You know, I'm concerned because one of the things that I've seen over the past three years doing the focus groups is just how little faith these voters have in the media, in institutions and what the truth is. They sort of throw their hands up a lot and say, I just don't know what to believe. One of the things I ask people is will they take a vaccine. And whether it's because they don't trust President Trump, not to politicize it, or whether it's because they've become, you know, hesitant about vaccines in general, there's just this sort of total collapse of faith in anything. And I think that, you know, as the Republican Party has made itself more open to that, that doesn't bode well for the long-term prospects.

So I'm concerned, but I do think that if Donald Trump is beaten resoundingly - one of the reasons I do the work that I do with Republican Voters Against Trump is that I don't think it's enough for Donald Trump to lose. I think it has to be a thorough repudiation of Trump and Trumpism so that the Republican Party has to go back and really reimagine itself in order to win back these suburban women, to win back the trust of the American people and to present something for the future that isn't doing active harm to the country.

SIMON: Sarah Longwell is a Republican strategist. Thanks so much for being with us.

LONGWELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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