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As voters talk, the collapse of Trump’s support becomes clearly audible

Tribune Washington BureauTribune Washington Bureau 11/08/2016 By David Lauter

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump grimaces as he makes remarks Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016 at the Trask Coliseum on the campus of University of North Carolina at Wilmington in Wilmington, N.C. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump grimaces as he makes remarks Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016 at the Trask Coliseum on the campus of University of North Carolina at Wilmington in Wilmington, N.C. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS) WASHINGTON — Many gauges measure the rapid drop in Donald Trump’s support this summer: Polls show the Republican nominee losing nationally and in most battleground states, prominent Republicans have publicly defected, and GOP elected officials rarely rush to his defense.

Twenty women, mostly swing voters, sitting at conference tables in Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix on Tuesday night, provide another.

“He’s crazy,” says one.

“He kind of acts like a 2-year-old,” says another. “I have a 2-year-old. I see the similarities.”

Asked to imagine a President Trump, the women in Phoenix call out in a cascade: “doomed,” “scary,” “hang on” and “are you joking?”

The women, participants in focus groups convened by pollsters Neil Newhouse, a Republican, and Margie Omero, a Democrat, talked about the major party candidates as reporters watched from an office in Washington.

The sessions were part of a project sponsored by Wal-Mart that for eight years has examined the attitudes of what the company calls Wal-Mart moms, women who shop at one of the giant retailer’s stores.

It’s a group that includes about one in seven American voters and is replete with the swing voters and soft partisans who candidates normally seek to persuade or mobilize precisely because they can decide elections.

These were not voters who had much praise for Hillary Clinton, noted Newhouse. Even Democrats in the two groups used words like “deceptive” “lies” and “dishonest” when they were asked to describe the Democratic nominee, although others referred positively to her toughness and experience.

To many of these women, Clinton appeared distant, emotionless and closed off. Few had a clear view of what she stands for, Omero noted.

Trump’s image appeared far more clearly etched in their minds, Newhouse said. Unfortunately for the GOP and its nominee, that image has become fixed in two tracks: foolish or frightening.

To some, Trump appeared as a buffoonish character. To others, he seemed dangerous — a hothead, authoritarian and inexperienced.

Those perceptions of the candidates’ character weigh heavily for these voters. Few on either side indicated that specific policies or issues were driving their choices.

Several, however, mentioned race and concerns about racism as a lens through which they were watching the campaign.

Asked to name an Olympic sport at which each candidate might excel, Anita M., a 43-year-old married Republican in Phoenix, responded with fencing for Clinton.

“She’d stab you in the back,” she explained, eliciting nods from around the table.

Don’t count her as a Trump voter, however. “He’s a racist, really,” Anita said, noting later that she probably won’t vote at all.

Asked to name an Olympic sport for Trump, several of the women in Phoenix cited diving, ski jumping or similar activities that involve, as one said, a “leap of faith” and an uncertain landing.

The focus group reactions add texture to one of the key findings of recent opinion polls, which have shown Trump losing ground among Republican women.

Several women in the Phoenix group said men in their lives were backing Trump: One cited her husband, another mentioned her father.

Africa C., a 40-year-old Latina business operations manager, said her son leaned toward Trump because he envisions himself a budding entrepreneur.

The women expressed far less enthusiasm, however. Several Republicans mentioned potential third-party candidates — an option none of the Democrats expressed interest in.

Stephanie C., a 38-year old, white, married Republican, was the most hostile to Clinton of the 10 women in Phoenix. She repeated conspiratorial allegations about mysterious deaths of people close to the former first lady that are staples of right-wing talk radio.

Yet even she hesitated about voting for her party’s nominee.

“Trump would get us right into World War III,” she said.

In Ohio, Ivania L, a radiation-safety officer who listed her age as between 35 and 44, said choosing Trump would be “like sending a painter to do a doctor’s job.”

She listed herself as undecided, but seemed more accurately described as resigned to what she considered a poor choice.

“I’d pick Minnie Mouse right now,” she said, but, in the end, Clinton’s “experience wins me more.”

That quality and strength ranked high on the minds of most of the Clinton backers.

Clinton won’t take ownership of her mistakes, complained Linda C., a 56-year-old African-American business owner in Phoenix. The Democratic nominee tries to sweep scandals under the rug, she said.

“There’s so much stuffed under there they can’t even lay the carpet down flat now,” she said. And yet Clinton had the knowledge to do the job, she added, while Trump was both inexperienced and “disrespectful.”

Lukisha H., a married African-American teacher sitting across from Linda, expressed similar concern about what she called Clinton’s unwillingness to clearly acknowledge her errors. But she praised the former secretary of state on other grounds.

“I think it’s a tough job, and you have to be tough at it,” she said.

In Ohio, Mary H., a retired cable television service rep, used an expletive to refer to Clinton as a “cold-hearted … ” And yet, she said, she too would probably vote for her because of her experience.

On all sides, the women were virtually unanimous in calling the campaign stressful to watch, disconcerting and offering a set of bad choices. The decision “is like choosing which arm to cut off,” said a participant in the Phoenix group.

In the end, though, they had little doubt about how the contest would turn out or why.

“I think Donald is going to say something that is going to scare everybody. And they’re just going to go with, ‘Whoa, we better go with Clinton cause he’s off the chain,’” said Gidget B, a white, married customer service representative in Columbus.

Asked to predict who will win the election, 18 of the 20 participants made the same call: Hillary Clinton.

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