By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH -- What happens when the veteran pollster Peter D. Hart invites 11 blue-collar and service-industry voters into a downtown office suite here and bids them to talk politics?
You are reminded that the despair among those in families with incomes below $50,000 is as deep as the anger they have expressed at the polls all year. You learn that the shortcomings rivals identify in presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump are seen as strengths among his backers. And you find that, despite the challenging fortnight Trump has endured, his appeal hasn't diminished among his supporters.
If these voters -- among them a woman who sells jewelry and purses on her own, a self-employed house remodeler, a homemaker and a lab technician -- break from Trump, his prospects here in Pennsylvania and perhaps around the country are dim. But amid turmoil in the campaign, a lengthy dispute over the ethnic heritage of a judge and tough talk about terrorism and immigration, Trump's supporters here in the Pittsburgh focus group remain strong backers of his campaign.
"This is the group he has to win in order to be competitive," Hart said after more than two hours of grueling, searching, sometimes emotional conversation, "and you cannot say that Trump's people have dismissed him."
The focus group, a project of Hart Research undertaken for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was conducted as the Quinnipiac University poll was about to release survey results showing Pennsylvania in a virtual tie, with Hillary Clinton holding a 1 percentage point lead over Trump in what remains a swing state, despite having voted Democratic in every election since Bill Clinton sought the presidency in 1992. The poll showed small advantages for Trump in being more honest and trustworthy and being more inspiring -- traits affirmed by the voters Hart assembled for his study.
"(Trump's) lacking a political background doesn't bother me," said Megan Carpenter, a 32-year-old high school graduate who leans Republican but is ardently for Trump. She says of the United States today: "We haven't been here before. We need something fresh."
A mild Republican who is a strong Trump backer, 50-year-old Raymond Fisher adds: "He will bring back manufacturing to this country."
Hart walked the group through many of the negative critiques of Trump, especially his lack of political experience, but his supporters remained firm.
"I think he'll listen to people about what the country needs, and he'll try to produce," said Glenda Taylor, a 42-year-old bartender who said she would probably vote for Trump.
A political outsider, said Richard Cornelius, 54, a probable Trump voter, "could effect change that might be good."
"It's almost as if he's real and the people in the past were cartoon characters," added Cherie Spena, 48, a hair stylist who said she hadn't yet decided whom to support.
"He's very confident, which kind of helps because you need a super level of confidence," said Dara Held, 40, a strong Trump supporter. "It could be refreshing not having a dirty politician as our next president."
"He's not my man," said Fred Jordan, 53, a security guard who leans toward Clinton, "but I do like (that Trump is) opinionated."
This was not a Clinton crowd; even so, the views these voters shared about the presumptive Democratic nominee were raw and harsh. When Hart asked the panel to select a single word to describe a Hillary Clinton presidency, along with optimistic and delight were these verdicts: lies, fake, challenging, embarrassing, scary, communist.
And Danyale Victor, a 45-year-old homemaker who said she probably would vote for Clinton, nonetheless expressed worries that, as she put it, the former secretary of state is "not really able to run the country."
Overall, these voters expressed a dim view of the state of the country less than five months before an election:
"Mass confusion," said Christopher Coughenour, a 24-year-old driver who said he would probably vote for Trump.
"We need change," said Mr. Fisher, "and it's not coming fast enough."
"We're really divided," said Mr. Cornelius.
"We're paying for the past, Democrats and Republicans," said Brian Easter, a limousine driver who leans toward Clinton.
Together the group agreed that the country faced unusual challenges.
"Now more than ever," said Sarah Majkowski, a 27-year-old web designer who is a strong Clinton supporter, "we are divided on our priorities."
There were, to be sure, many contradictions among these voters, and many of the partisans viewed their favored candidate with clear eyes. Among the most ardent anti-establishment voters there remained the belief that establishment forces in Washington would rein in Trump's more colorful eccentricities. And even those skeptical of Trump believe he won the GOP nomination fairly.
As the evening wore on, the hesitant Trump voters sounded even more firmly in his corner, and there were no new bursts of support for Clinton.
One sharp exchange was illuminating. At one point Ms. Majkowski, a strong Clinton backer, compared Trump to a child, saying, "He's honest in the way a child is (when) they don't know any better."
Mr. Fisher, the strong Trump supporter, shot back: "He's childish because he's not a politician. He's treating the (campaign) as a takeover of a company. He's going to make mistakes and is going to overcome them in a way Hillary won't."
And so it went, on into the evening.
Hart said that, among these voters, Clinton had little affinity. "There's nothing that connects," he said. But that's not surprising. This group generally represents the sweet spot for her rival.
"If Donald Trump doesn't carry the day with this group of people there's no other path for him," said Hart. Monday night his path seemed clear, at least with these fellow travelers.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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