The Politics of Gloom

American Age Official

Earlier this week, 10 women from across the country met on Zoom and talked for two hours as part of a focus group on politics. All of the women were white, lived in the suburbs and had been identified as swing voters. One was a mother from Iowa who owns a small business. Another teaches special education in Florida. And there was a school bus driver from Pennsylvania.

The session was sponsored by several liberal groups who invited us to tune in but asked us not to identify the participants or the organizations. They cited a need to protect the participants’ privacy and to separate the views of the focus group from the views of the sponsoring organizations.

The women first responded to a question about how things were going in the country. The most optimistic answer might have been “uncertain.” The others shared that they were “nervous,” “concerned,” “frustrated” and “irritated.”

The teacher from Florida spoke about struggling to keep up with medical bills for her cancer treatment. “I thought I was ahead but I keep falling behind,” she said. One recently split up with her spouse over how seriously to take Covid. One devotes an entire day every weekend to running her errands, so she can save money on gas.

“It’s been the worst time,” said an educational consultant in Pennsylvania. “I can’t believe that we’re living through this.”

This focus group of 10 women is a grain of sand on the beach that is the American electorate. But they open a window into a widespread gloom that helps explain why some voters doubt that the Biden administration can fulfill its promise to restore their lives to normal. These women are consumed by the problems that the federal government has said it’s trying to solve, but they seem to believe that the government lacks the power to fix them.

Focus groups are but one data point in the run-up to an election. A professional mediator guides the group’s discussion, with the goal of revealing perspectives that don’t usually get captured in polling, which is a far more scripted and fast-paced interaction.

Focus groups can provide anecdotes to explain trends in polling, and the organizers tend to group voters by their demographics. The organizer of this focus group is conducting sessions with multiple demographic groups; the one we were invited to this week happened to center on the views of white women. The participants were identified as swing voters because they had expressed misgivings about their past votes — some of the women had voted for Donald Trump, while others had voted for President Biden.

Democrats need support from suburban women if they want to keep their House and Senate majorities in November. The women in the focus group didn’t necessarily dislike Biden. They supported the infrastructure law and opposed measures that restrict voting access. They applauded Biden for his hot-mic moment — the one when he muttered a disparaging remark about a Fox News reporter. They disliked Trump, and they were disgusted with those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Despite all of that, they weren’t eager to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections in November.

“I can’t really have any hope for 2022 coming up,” said a woman from Tennessee who works for a professional wrestling company. “So they’re not giving me any sort of ambition to feel like I have any sort of trust in the government to fix things or at least get the ball going in the right direction.”

Democrats know they need to campaign on their accomplishments to preserve their majorities. Biden himself has suggested that he needs to do a better job telling voters what his administration and Democrats in Congress have done. But, as these women made clear, just talking to voters isn’t enough. Democrats need to make sure voters feel the effects of their efforts, too.

“It’s absolutely essential that by Election Day, these suburban women are looking at Washington and seeing it as a place that can get things done,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist.

The women in the focus group did not know that the moderator guiding the discussion was a Democrat or that the sponsors were liberal organizations. All they knew before logging on was that they would be observed, though they did not know by whom. Some of them refused to answer a few questions, saying they were not informed enough to form an opinion. And some of them said they usually avoided talking about politics.

When they were asked how they saw their role in the midterm elections, they laughed. “The suckers,” an Arizona mother answered. “We’re that automated laugh reel,” joked a woman in Utah.

They saw Washington more as a playground than as a place where problems get solved.

“At the end of the day you need to learn how to play in the sandbox together,” an interior designer from Georgia said, lamenting about bickering politicians.

When it came to the infrastructure law, some of the women agreed that Democrats had included nonessential items that had nothing to do with roads or bridges. But they also thought Republicans should have voted to pass it anyway.

“We need it, so whatever’s shoved in there at this point, just take it,” the Georgia woman said.

They generally agreed that Biden stood out from other politicians for being “empathetic.” But even if they believed that Biden had wanted to make a difference, they didn’t think he was an exception to the rule. They seemed to doubt that any politician could solve the country’s biggest problems.

The women expressed that corporations and the wealthiest Americans wielded the most power, not politicians. But they didn’t think there was anything the government could do to make corporations pay their fair share — these companies always find loopholes, they argued.

After two hours of venting their frustrations, they concluded the conversation with an excoriation of the rioters who stormed the Capitol.

“How did we let it get that bad?” asked the woman in Utah.

With that, the moderator told them their time was up. She asked them to type up final thoughts before they logged off. One immediately left the call, while the others took a moment to say their goodbyes. The teacher in Florida, who spoke of struggling with cancer, was the last to sign off.

“Thank you,” she told the moderator. “I got a lot out of it.”

the former guy

Remember those old commercials in which a giant, smiling pitcher of Kool-Aid interrupts a baseball game or a wedding, bursting through a wall to share the joy of a sugary beverage?

From the Republican establishment’s perspective, the role of the Kool-Aid Man was played this week by the former president, who crashed the proverbial party in two states: Georgia and New Hampshire.

In Georgia, Trump cut his first face-to-camera ad for a candidate, David Perdue. At Trump’s urging, the former senator is challenging Brian Kemp, the sitting governor, in the upcoming Republican primary.

“The Democrats walked all over Brian Kemp,” Trump says in the ad. “Brian Kemp let us down. We can’t let it happen again.”

It’s an allusion to Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him in Georgia, and another way to air his anger that Kemp refused to go along with his efforts to overturn the vote. The district attorney in Georgia’s Fulton County is investigating Trump for seeking to improperly influence the outcome of that election.

“While President Trump brought jobs back from overseas, David Perdue made a career outsourcing them to China, Mexico and other countries,” Cody Hall, a spokesman for the Kemp campaign, said of the ad. “That’s not America First — that’s David Perdue padding his own wallet on the backs of hardworking Americans.”

As for New Hampshire, Trump’s on-and-off political lieutenant, Corey Lewandowski, told a conservative radio host that the former president had empowered him to find a primary challenger for the state’s moderate Republican governor.

​​“The president is very unhappy with the chief executive officer of the State of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu,” Lewandowski told Howie Carr, a Boston-area radio personality. “And Sununu, in the president’s estimation, is someone who’s never been loyal to him. And the president said it would be really great if somebody would run against Chris Sununu.”

A spokesperson for Sununu did not respond to a request for comment. But Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, had plenty to say about Trump’s intervention.

“This is another outrageous example of the Trump cancel culture that will do nothing except help elect more Democrats,” Hogan said. He added, “If we double down on failure and focus on the former president’s strange personal grievances, then we will deserve the result.”

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