Nearly all of the focus group participants had supported Donald Trump in 2020 and said they would vote for him again against President Biden in 2024. But things got complicated when the moderator asked for the one emotion they now felt when they saw Trump on television or computers screens.
“That’s a hard one. That’s a hard one,” said Angela, 53, from South Carolina. “Just because of the way they’ve done him.” She spoke of Trump’s opponents who had tried to hurt him both in office and since he left the White House. “It’s more of an embarrassment for him for what they put him through,” she added. “I feel embarrassed for him.”
“The current Trump is not the Trump that I voted for,” said Nancy, 69, from Iowa. “I feel like he has shown some things, qualities and non-qualities, whatever, that I don’t care for now.”
Deborah, 67, also from South Carolina, described herself as “stumped” by the question. “I was proud when he was our president, but you know, there’s so many things … the way they treated him and everything, ” she said, alluding to Trump critics.
Such hesitation and ambiguity dominated two recent focus groups of persuadable Republican primary voters from the key early nominating states of New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and South Carolina. In the sessions with 14 voters, conducted for The Washington Post by research firms Engagious and Schlesinger, most stood by their past support for the onetime undisputed Republican leader. The future was a different issue, with most saying they would vote for someone else in the GOP primary. Half of the group said they would vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Two people picked “pride” and “hopeful” as their emotions upon seeing Trump, but the rest pulled from the other end of their emotional range, with words like “anxious,” “neutral,” “frustrated,” “nervous,” “overwhelmed,” “fatigue,” “embarrassed,” “annoyed,” and “maddening.” Most were careful not to criticize Trump directly — they praised his presidency and had critical views of Biden — but something had shifted. They spoke of him as a victim with flaws, not as the unassailable political alpha leader that had taken the party by storm in 2016.
“To borrow a phrase from the late Ross Perot, what we heard was the giant sucking sound of persuadable GOP voters migrating away from Donald Trump,” said Rich Thau, moderator of the focus groups and president of Engagious, a firm specializing in policy message testing. “People tend to vote more on how they feel than how they think. And Trump is evoking more negative than positive emotions in these voters.”
Unlike public opinion surveys, focus group panels, which are a type of qualitative research, do not offer statistically significant projections of an entire universe of voters. But they do allow for a deeper understanding of trends that have become evident in public polling. Trump finds himself at the start of the presidential campaign with significant, and devoted support. But for the moment there is a larger universe of Republican voters with worries and a wandering eye.
An early February Washington Post-ABC News poll found 44 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents wanted the party to nominate Trump in 2024 while 49 percent wanted “someone else.” One-third of Republicans said they would feel “enthusiastic” if Trump won another term as president, while 46 percent said they would feel “satisfied but not enthusiastic” and 20 percent felt dissatisfied or angry.
The fourteen people who gathered on Feb. 13 for two panels of focus groups included a mix of voters by education and age. They had been recruited by the Schlesinger Group as Republicans and Republican-leaning independent registered voters in early primary or caucus states who said they were undecided or that there was a chance they could support someone other than their current preference. This filter likely excluded many Trump supporters who are more committed to their candidate in public polling.
All but two had voted for Trump in 2016 and all but one said they would support Trump over Biden. When asked who they would vote for today for the nomination, three said Trump, seven said DeSantis and two said former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Two said they did not know.
One issue they were united on was a concern about the age of the candidates running for president, including both Trump, 76, and Biden, 80. Asked to name the age at which no candidate for president should be allowed to run, the highest answer came in at 72, with the average response coming in at 68. Asked to name an ideal age for a president on Inauguration Day, no one said a number higher than 64, with the average response coming in at 51.
Barbara, 63, from Iowa, said she would probably vote for Trump again if he ran. “But if somebody else stepped in there to run that was younger, and more on the, you know, all of the views, I would probably vote for them,” she said.
The alternatives to Trump, among the groups, remain unsettled, with only a few respondents even able to identify photographs of potential presidential contenders beyond Trump, DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence. But the early reviews of DeSantis suggested that he was now fulfilling the pugilistic and domineering reputation that Trump had enjoyed in 2016.
One person described him as “kicking Disney’s ass,” a reference to DeSantis’s attacks on the media giant for resisting his efforts to prevent discussions of gender identity and same-sex relationships through third grade. “He’s bold and he can be a firecracker too,” said another.
“When I see him talk, I really believe what he is telling,” said Roslyn, 66, from Nevada.
“I think Trump is just a showman, and I think DeSantis actually has teeth,” said Nancy.
“He’s obviously a threat to Trump, who is not happy with him,” said Rick, 68, from Nevada.
The focus group participants also largely said that Trump’s opposition to rivals would not stop them from voting for someone else. They expressed confidence that he would do just that. But they also sounded curious about who would prevail in the coming clash.
“Trump attacks anyone who disagrees with him, and it doesn’t matter who the party is,” explained Larry, 61, from South Carolina. “It’s hard to take it seriously.”
“I do think that DeSantis is by far the most favorable competitor to Trump, if anyone would dethrone him it would be him,” said Clark, 23, from New Hampshire. “I do also like the fact that DeSantis is younger, but I think I would still lean towards Trump.”
Haley also received lots of positive reviews, with multiple people citing her Indian ancestry and the fact that she is a woman as assets that could help her reach more independent voters. Several voters from South Carolina remembered her as a strong governor. “She checks a lot of boxes,” said Larry. “So the people who want to check boxes will like her.”
Any concern over Trump was easily overridden by concern about his successor. Fox News, social media, ABC News and the Drudge Report were the most popular sources of news and information for the voters. They had an unwaveringly negative view of the current president.
“He’s pretty much a marionette. I don’t know who’s pulling his strings, but it sure as heck isn’t him,” said Larry.