When 12 voters gathered in Aurora, Colorado, for a political focus group on Thursday night, it wasn’t surprising to hear them compete to see who could bash politicians more. “If we got rid of every member of Congress and elected new people tomorrow who had no experience, I don’t think we could do any worse,” said Charlie Loan, who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. When the group was asked to come up with phrases members of Congress should wear on wrist bracelets, they suggested “Don’t trust me, I lie,” “Looking out for me,” and “Two Faced.”
But one politician escaped the voters’ ire: Elizabeth Warren. Six of the 12 said they would like to have Warren over to their house to talk, more than any other possible 2016 presidential contender they were asked about. They said she was “down to earth” and “knowledgeable.” When asked a separate question about which politician they would like to have live next door, they picked Warren over every other contender as well. Jenny Howard, an accountant with student-loan debt who voted for Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain in 2008, also liked Warren: “If she ran, she could be the next president because she is personable and knowledgeable and has a good handle on what’s going on in the country.”
Peter Hart organized this Colorado focus group. Hart, a Democratic pollster for more than 40 years, helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/ NBC poll and has been holding these kinds of sessions for the past four presidential elections. The focus group was the first of a series of such two-hour interviews of swing voters that Hart will do leading up to the 2016 presidential election, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center to track how voter sentiment changes.
These people do not represent metaphysical certitude about the country’s political opinion—it’s only 12 people after all—and we are still far from the next election so much can change, but they offer glimpses of the current stirring in the public. Their desire for change, concerns about the economy (despite news that things are better), and interest in a candidate who cares about the middle class have appeared consistently in polls and other voter forums.
The affection for Warren among the group of five self-described independents, three Republicans, and four Democrats may not tell us anything about the Massachusetts senator herself. It’s possible that she is a vehicle through which they are signaling their desire for change, for something authentic and maybe new. Charlie Loan, an IT manager, says he voted the straight conservative line in the most recent election but he’d listen to what Warren had to say. “The little I have seen and heard from her, she seems genuine—people from [Oklahoma] usually are. Since she was formerly devoted to the Republican Party, maybe she fits in the middle somewhere, which is where I would like to see most of them be. She is clearly well-educated and seems level-headed.”
If Warren is a possible vessel for change, so too is Sen. Rand Paul, whom several of the conservatives found intriguing. (Sen. Ted Cruz wasn’t mentioned, even though he, like Paul and Warren, is also trying to position himself as an outsider on the inside.) Paul had a bit of the crossover appeal that Warren had. “He’s a reasonable choice,” said Andrew Regan, who described himself as a strong Democrat. “I would consider him, but I don’t know who the Democratic nominee is going to be.” Regan was emblematic of the strong desire for something new. Despite his ideological affiliations, he was happy to see Republicans in control of Congress. “I’m happy to see that Republicans took Congress. Instead of a ‘Do Nothing’ Congress we have a ‘Do Something’ Congress.”
Once a Democratic nominee is chosen, it’s almost certain that Regan, a self-employed beekeeper, will vote as he always has. That’s what voters usually do. The same is true with conservatives who express an openness for Warren. But Warren’s authenticity, anti-corporate message, and outsider status all reflect the desire for change that came across so clearly from most of the participants.
The 2016 contenders who didn’t fare well are also two of its marquee names: Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Six of the 12 said they would back a law to bar all Bushes and Clintons from running. “He’s running off the Bush name and thinks that’s something,” said Howard. In a free-association exercise, the words people used to describe Bush included: “joke,” “no thank you,” “clown,” “interesting,” “don’t need him,” “intriguing,” “greedy,” and “bad scene.” (By contrast, Paul was described as “entertaining,” “interesting,” “very intriguing,” “honest,” and “freedom.”) Mention of Hillary Clinton conjured “hopeful,” “crazy,” “strong,” “spitfire,” “don’t like her,” “untrustworthy,” “more of the same,” and “next candidate, please.” Although the antipathy toward Bush and Clinton was often specific, it also could be read as a broad dislike of American politics today.
Not surprisingly, the economy was the issue everyone was most concerned about. Jobs numbers were solid again on Friday and the unemployment rate is at 5.6 percent (lower than Mitt Romney said it would be under his administration by the year 2017), but the good numbers didn’t do anything to assuage the participants’ worries. Though they said lower gas prices have helped, most were skeptical things were genuinely getting better.
“It’s nice to have the extra money,” said Susan Brink, a 56-year-old independent who voted for Barack Obama. “But I do kind of feel like they give us a little bit to make us happy, and then they take it away.” Rick Lamutt, a right-leaning independent who works as “a cable guy,” said that despite the good numbers, he sees the truth of the real economy in all the houses he visits where family members are moving in together and struggling to make do. “The simple fact is, regardless of what the numbers say, there’s a lot of hurting people out there,” he said. “You’ve seen on the news, ‘Everything’s fine, the economy’s great, there’s jobs everywhere!’ Well, if you want to make $9 an hour, you can go get a job, but if you want to make a wage that can support your family, good luck.”
This pervasive feeling of economic insecurity drove what these voters are looking for in candidates, too. Kimberly Tyler, a 61-year-old veterinarian, wanted a candidate who understood the pinch of the middle-class lifestyle. “Most in politics have money and it’s a money game for them and they don’t relate to the middle class, and everyone in the middle class is hanging on by their fingernails.”
There’s a long road before the election and while these views give us some idea of the mood, it’s important to keep in mind that even these voters are a long way off from drawing any real conclusions about specific candidates. Hart asked everyone to place themselves at a racetrack that showed how far along they were in their thinking about the next presidential contest. Most said they were in the parking lot. One woman said she was in her car taking allergy medicine—she said she was allergic to both horses and politicians. When asked whom she’d like to see in the race, she replied, “Superman.” But he hasn’t even formed a leadership PAC yet.