Are Pennsylvania voters ready for a woman president?

A focus group of working-class voters in western Pennsylvania reveals concerns about Hillary Clinton's gender. This may signal an opening for Donald Trump in a key state. 

Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters
A supporter reacts to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he signs autographs after speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh, Pa., on June 11.

Is America really ready to elect a woman president?

Polls strongly suggest yes. By 1999, Gallup found that 92 percent of Americans were willing to vote for a well-qualified woman for president. 

But the reality may be far more complicated. In suburban Pittsburgh this week, a focus group of 11 blue-collar, economically struggling voters demonstrated just how deep Hillary Clinton’s challenge may be.

“I’m going to set women back, but I don’t think women and men are equal,” said Danyale, a 40-something black woman. “And I like Hillary, I’m a big supporter of hers. But I don’t think she can run the country.”

Why? Danyale was asked. “Because she’s a woman,” the homemaker responded. “And even though everybody says equality and this and that, she’s going to be challenged…. Her womanhood’s going to be put on a plateau, and they’re going attack her.”

Moderator Peter Hart knew he was onto something. Leave aside that it’s Mrs. Clinton, he said, but hold onto the idea that a woman president is “concerning.” Anybody else agree? he asked. Six hands went up, including Danyale’s. That’s a majority of the group.

“Across the board in other countries it’s a male arena of leaders, and I just think they’re going to be so much up against her for that,” said Dara, a 40-year-old Trump supporter.

Fred, a black, middle-aged Clinton supporter who works as a security guard, said he thinks it’s time for a female president, “because we just broke the waters with our first African American president.”

Then came the “but.”

He’s most worried about “her emotions,” Fred said, “because she’s going to be attacked.” Though he added that he thought Clinton could withstand the pressure.

Another in the group, a 30-something homemaker named Megan, suggested that gender could be a distraction. “I feel that if she gets in, larger issues will go unnoticed due simply to the attention to something that she can’t change,” said Megan, a Trump supporter.

Nobody accused Clinton of playing the “woman card,” as Trump did recently. But the reservations about her gender in that focus group certainly suggest that Trump may not have been completely off base in trying to turn her gender into a negative.

Focus groups, of course, aren’t scientific. But they can provide clues to what voters are thinking in a way that dry opinion polls can’t. For Trump, in particular, working-class voters from Pennsylvania may be central to his chances in November.

The state is heavy on older, white voters without college degrees, Trump’s “base,” and early analysis of the race suggests Trump will need to win such voters by big margins to offset Clinton's advantages among minorities and college-educated voters and women.

Though Pennsylvania has gone Democratic in every presidential race since 1992, the state has been drifting rightward in recent years, driven by the economically challenged, rust-belt, western part of the state. In fact, analysts say, Pennsylvania could be the key to the entire election

So it is that suburban Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania, proved to be the location of choice for the focus group organized by Hart Research on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Reporters were invited to watch, either in person or via video uplink.

Going in, the group (six women, five men) was fairly evenly split: six for Trump, four for Clinton, and one for the Libertarian Gary Johnson.

With the Trump supporters, it quickly became clear that much of what consumes inside-the-Beltway chatter was of little concern. The group didn’t care that Trump had yet to release his tax returns. And the fact that he says things that are questionable, or downright false, also didn’t seem to bother his supporters.

In fact, one of the qualities that group members praised was Trump’s “honesty.” Though it became clear that “honesty” was more likely a stand-in for “authenticity” than a penchant for saying things that are factually true. 

“When you ask him a question, a lot of politicians would dodge; Trump will just answer,” says Richard, a middle-aged lab technician. “And everybody hammers him for it, but at least he answered the question.”

Mr. Hart turns to a young Clinton supporter in the group named Sarah and asks for her reaction.

“I’m afraid,” she says. “Don’t attack me, but I think that he’s honest in the way a child is honest, because they don’t know any better.”

Raymond, a Trump supporter, nods in agreement. Then he turns the criticism of Trump into a positive.

“In a lot of ways he is childish, because he’s not a politician,” says Raymond, a middle-aged home remodeler. “He’s treating this running as a takeover of a company.... He’s going to make mistakes and will be able to overcome them, where I don’t think Hillary will.”

Even some Clinton supporters spoke positively about aspects of Trump’s candidacy: Brian, a limo driver, calls Trump “up front” and “honest about what he has to say, because he doesn’t care.” Danyale likes Trump’s plan to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. She also likes his call to ban noncitizen Muslims from entering the country, as does Fred.

By the end of the two-hour session, the group had shifted in a more pro-Trump direction. Danyale, who at first said that Trump “kind of comes off to me like a racist,” said she was now 50-50 between Trump and Clinton. Brian, who started out as “probably Clinton,” was also now evenly divided. When asked to explain why, he suggested that he had been swayed by the group. Chris, a young father who started out praising Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian, also upped his score for Trump.

“Group think” can certainly set in in these sessions. Sarah, the only Clinton supporter who put her chances of voting for Trump at zero, was also the only one to defend the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t think [Trump] understands what it’s like to be on the opposite side of that lavish lifestyle,” says Sarah, a struggling young web designer and the only one in the group with a four-year college degree. “So when he says the first thing he’s going to do when he takes office is get rid of Obamacare, that scares me.”

Sarah also wasn’t completely sold on Clinton. Most of the Trump supporters, too, had some ambivalence toward him. In fact, eight of the 11 participants wish someone else would get into the race.

But if Trump and Clinton had been able to watch this focus group, there’s no doubt who would have been the happier spectator.

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