MANCHESTER, N.H. — I wasn’t sure what to expect from a focus group of Donald Trump voters in New Hampshire last week. CBS News had invited me to watch a panel it had gathered for a segment that aired Sunday on “Face the Nation.” After all, most Granite State Republicans didn’t back him in the primary, though they did in the general election when he was on the ballot against Hillary Clinton.
I have covered New Hampshire politics for more than 15 years, so I have a pretty good sense of the state and its voters. I saw the rise of Donald Trump in 2015 and understood that his campaign could be successful if it could exploit the local party’s existing split between the establishment and grass-roots.
Now that Trump is the head of the party, I was curious how Trump voters feel. Exactly one year after the election, the nation overall has been giving him bad grades. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that no president has been this unpopular so early in his term in seven decades. Then there was the bad night the GOP had last Tuesday, with Democrats trouncing Republicans in several elections.
So did Trump turn out to be the president his supporters thought they were electing? Did they like the man in theory but wish he would be more presidential? Or, given the tribal nature of American politics lately, are they on the Trump train no matter what?
CBS found six people willing to come to a Manchester bar to answer questions for national television. They ranged in ages from 26 to 82, and they were all white. There was a mix of Republicans and independents. Most lived in the southern part of the state, its most populous.
“Face the Nation” moderator John Dickerson led the conversation by asking open-ended questions and letting the participants talk. Their answers shed light on several considerations, namely how much they are still into Trump but also just how much they aren’t into the Republican Party as a whole. They view Trump as a flawed individual but also a vessel for the conservative cause in a way that the broader party is not.
Here are the three big takeaways from the conversation:
The economy is how Trump is winning them over (and how he could lose them).
One of the main topics all six participants agreed on is that Trump has made things better in the country. Why? Hint: It’s the economy, stupid. All six cited economic issues as the main reason for their support of the president, specifically pointing out the country’s low unemployment rate, along with the record highs in the stock market. One panelist even talked about how he has seen increased activity at the restaurant where he works.
But they did indicate their support for Trump isn’t unconditional. Trump once famously said his supporters would stick with him even if he were to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. There were some moments during the conversation when that almost sounded true. But the participants were also clear that if the economy starts to nosedive, they won’t stick by him. As Peter Lajoie, an independent voter from Nashua, put it, a spiraling economy will mean that “Trump will be seen as a loser.” And, as Lajoie added, Trump doesn’t like losers.
It’s worth remembering that New Hampshire voters have long put taxes and economic issues ahead of other matters, in comparison with voters in other states who might be more concerned with social issues or national security. So, in fairness, this takeaway might be unique to New Hampshire.
All those goals Trump hasn’t accomplished? Don’t blame him, blame Congress.
All six participants might have been quick to raise their hands when asked whether the country is better off. But when they were asked whether Congress has made things better for the country in the last year, not a single hand went up.
The lack of any major legislative accomplishment frustrated many participants, who wanted to see quick action on health care and the building of a southern border wall especially. But none of that, they added, is Trump’s fault. Instead, they blamed the Republican Congress, which they see as just another arm of the self-interested political swamp in Washington.
“[Congress] ought to follow their party platform and whatever stems from that,” said Terry Cox, a 69-year-old independent voter from Webster. “We have a majority, or the GOP has a majority, in Congress, Senate, and the presidency. And they’re not working together. And it’s shameful.”
Typically, when one party controls the legislative and executive branches and nothing gets done, people blame the president. In this case, the less that gets done in Congress, the more Trump looks good in the eyes of his fans.
All accept the premise Trump isn’t a role model. But they don’t care.
This was about as strong a group of Trump supporters as you’ll find, in New England at least. But that doesn’t mean they see him as a role model, for them or for their children. Asked whether he was a good moral leader for this country, not a single participant thought he was. But they pushed back at the notion that good morals are part of the presidential job description.
Deanna Seidel, a 37-year-old mother from Concord, said she wouldn’t want her kids looking up to Trump. Tom McAndrews, a 51-year-old Republican from Nashua, said it bothers him when the president tells lies.
“It is very frustrating. It’s one of the big knocks on the president is that he can’t seem to keep his ego in check and keep the lies under control. He needs to act presidential and step it up,” McAndrews said. “But being a moral leader is not part of the job.”
Dennis Hammond, a 54-year-old independent voter from Manchester, said he wishes the president would stop the tweeting because he feels it doesn’t help Trump do his job and is simply “a distraction.”
And just about everyone thought Trump’s tweets about National Football League players taking a knee were misguided — they just weren’t relevant to the larger political issues they hope he’ll tackle.
Time and again, this group of Trump voters proved they are still with him, even as they often shake their heads at him. To them, Trump represents the person who will fight against an entrenched political class they see as not looking out for the American public. And that matters more than him being a person they like.
But if Trump loses his reputation as the person who will stand up for the little guy, or if the economy starts to falter, Trump might lose a key constituency that he’ll need if he wants to be reelected in 2020.