After Brussels, Trump's 'strength' resonates with GOP voters

Projecting strength is a central part of Donald Trump's appeal, especially after Brussels – as a focus group of GOP voters shows.

Mario Anzuoni/Rueters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Ariz., Saturday.

[Updated at 2 p.m. ET] Over and over, as Republican voters spoke of the presidential race – and of Donald Trump in particular – one word kept coming up: “strong.”

The nation needs a strong leader, said the 12 voters, gathered Tuesday night in St. Louis for a focus group. That’s hardly a surprising conclusion, especially following the deadly terror attacks by the Islamic State in Brussels earlier in the day. And Mr. Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, projects strength, they said.

After Tuesday’s nominating contests, in which Trump gained more delegates than his top rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the billionaire is one step closer to accomplishing an extraordinary feat: winning the Republican presidential nomination as a political novice, while bucking party orthodoxy on a range of issues, from trade to entitlements to the US’s role in the world to Planned Parenthood.

Some in the group expressed reservations about Trump. He needs a “filter,” two of the women said. He needs to “turn the noise down just a tad,” said another. “Be a bit more humble,” said one of the men. Two of the 12 voters in the focus group – organized by veteran pollster Peter Hart, with reporters watching via live stream – said they would vote for Trump in November only as “a last resort.”

So why do some voters see Trump as strong? 

“Because he’s direct and outspoken, and uses language that they understand and relate to,” Mr. Hart told the Monitor Wednesday. “I don’t want to say the swear words, but the way in which he approaches it, it’s not political speak. It’s straight talk, and he gets credit for it.”

Hart describes Trump’s style as “authoritarian.” In fact, recent academic research shows that Trump supporters are united by one common trait – not income, education level, or race, but an inclination toward authoritarian leadership. That finding could have profound implications for the Democrats come November, if Trump is the Republican nominee.

“Because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams, the author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in Politico last December. 

Placing Trump in the American historical context is tricky. In many ways, the real estate mogul/reality TV star/Twitter maven has no historical precedent. But in his ability to project strength, at least, Hart sees a hint of Ronald Reagan.

“If you were looking for the one link between President Reagan and Trump, it is the clear, straightforward, declarative language,” says Hart. “The difference is, Reagan was always the smiling face, with an upbeat, sunny message of ‘morning in America,’ and Trump is obviously stern and tough. And while he says he will ‘make America great again,’ essentially his language is much more negative and harsher.”

After Tuesday’s nominating contests, in which Trump gained more delegates than his top rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the billionaire is one step closer to accomplishing an extraordinary feat: winning the Republican presidential nomination as a political novice, while bucking party orthodoxy on a range of issues, from trade to entitlements to the US’s role in the world to Planned Parenthood.

But ultimately, if Trump wins the Republican nomination, only one said they would never vote for him. That result flies in the face of polls that show major reservations about Trump by Republican voters. One recent survey shows more than a third of Republican voters in the “never Trump” camp. 

On Tuesday, Trump and Senator Cruz performed as expected: Trump won the Arizona primary, and all 58 delegates at stake, with 47 percent of the vote. Senator Cruz won the Utah caucuses, and all 40 of the state’s delegates, with 69 percent of the vote. A contested GOP convention in July remains a possibility, but Trump still has potential to lock up the nomination before then.

In Arizona, about half of the voting took place before Tuesday, and the attacks in Brussels. Among those who voted on primary day, it’s not clear how the terror attack might have affected voters’ choices.

But Brussels certainly weighed heavily on the focus group voters in St. Louis. When asked for the “one thing” they’re looking for in the next president, voters named a range of qualities, including ability to get things done, high moral character, and toughness.

“You’ve got to be strong,” said Trump supporter Kevin Rotellio, a restaurant manager in his 40s. “We can’t be weak, or we might be the next terror attack.”

At another point, when the discussion turned to leadership style, one participant brought up a world leader whom Trump has said he admires.

“This business about Trump’s being outspoken and harsh and all that – isn’t Putin the same way? And he seems to be doing OK, so I don’t know that that’s bad,” said Joseph Glass, a retired engineer who voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Missouri primary.

The biggest reservations over Trump were voiced by women – a reflection of polling that shows women are more concerned than men by Trump’s manner, and an overall gender gap. When the group was asked by Mr. Hart if Trump would be different as president than he has been as a candidate, some expressed hope that that would be the case.

“If he surrounds himself with reasonable people, he will be different,” said Joyce Reinitz, a teacher who lists her party affiliation as “not strong Republican.” “He’ll still be opinionated. But he will have perhaps some of the social filters built in as personalities that will try to calm him down.”

Another woman, homemaker Gabrielle Ritter, also hoped for the calming influence of advisers, if Trump is elected. Ms. Ritter, an independent who voted for Cruz in the primary and came into the focus group with a “very unfavorable” view of Trump, wished “he could just come across more reasonable.”

“I’m concerned about him discussing deals with Putin or Iraq or the Middle East or Mexico,” she said. “I’m concerned, because of how he is portrayed in the media right now, how he is going to handle those situations, so that we don’t end up in a worse international situation. I think that the best decision that he could make is to choose a good cabinet of advisers to help him.”

Cherri Crenshaw, another independent woman who voted for Cruz, said she is looking for a president who is "strong plus respectful." When asked to elaborate, she responded: “It’s the opposite of Donald Trump. I think he is very strong, but I think he comes across as a bully. I don’t think you can lead the country when you’re demeaning people in such blatant ways.”

And yet of the 12, only one focus group participant said they could never vote for Trump. And when asked if they had reservations about Trump’s understanding of foreign policy, only one person raised their hand.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo is that high – high enough to put a foreign policy novice in the Oval Office. Frustration over the Obama years, and the inability to “get things done,” burns hot. And Republican voters, at least most of these voters, are prepared to bet on someone who is untested in government – even someone they don’t much like. They dismissed the concerns of the GOP “establishment” as “Washington politicians” who have nobody but themselves to blame for the rise of Trump.

Focus groups are an imperfect way to gauge public sentiment. (Though it must be noted that Hart as moderator, with the sponsorship of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is considered the gold standard.) Sometimes a form of “group think” can set in.

That may have been the case with this group, when all but one said they’d vote for Trump if he’s the nominee. But exasperation with the Obama administration, and the state of the country, may be so high by November that the vast majority of Republicans would be willing to pull the lever for Trump, despite the polls today.

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