As 2020 kicks into gear, a series of focus groups involving “low-information voters” conducted by Barack Obama’s former speechwriter offer some deeply troubling — if at times hilarious — takeaways for Democrats.
The study, which involved focus groups in four different cities, was conducted late last year by Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, for the second season of his Crooked Media-produced podcast “The Wilderness.” Each focus group consisted of 10 voters with specific voting records: Philadelphia’s group of ten all voted for Hillary in 2016; Milwaukee’s group voted for Obama in 2012, flipped to Trump in 2016, then voted Democrat again in 2018; the group in Miami was mostly black and Hispanic voters who voted for Obama in 2012, but either stayed home in 2016 or voted third party; and the Phoenix participants all flipped from Romney in 2012 to Clinton in 2016. All but the Phoenix group consisted of what politicos generally call “low-information voters.”
Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby, who spoke with Favreau about the focus groups, offers a rather devastating summary of what the podcaster leaned from the three “low-information” voters.
“I came away thinking that Trump may not be as big of a challenge as the cynicism and distrust that a lot of these voters have towards the entire political system and the media,” Favreau told Hamby. “Most of them don’t like Trump at all, but since politics hasn’t delivered for them in a tangible way, they’re starting to ignore the circus altogether, which makes them very hard to reach.”
Hamby points out that among the Democrats the low-information crowd named when asked about who they associate with the “Democratic Party,” only two of the current Democratic presidential candidates’ names came up frequently: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren was named by just three people, while Pete Buttigieg’s name was cited by only one. Though respondents said they largely aligned with the Democratic Party on key issues, they also associated it with “infighting, taxes, socialism, ineptitude, and ‘too many candidates,’” Hamby notes.
Though most of the Democratic candidates appeared to be off most of their radars, Trump was “everywhere,” said Favreau. “I purposely waited to bring up Trump because I wanted to ask them about their thoughts on issues important to them and why they vote and what they think about government first,” he told Hamby. “But in almost every focus group, someone just brought up Trump almost immediately. He is everywhere, like a national psychic wound.”
While Favreau characterized Trump as inflicting trauma on everyone, he also admitted that while “none of them” liked him, they also weren’t thrilled about or committed to any of the Democrats and exhibited a deep distrust in the media. Hamby reports:
But even as they universally expressed displeasure with Trump, including the people who voted for him in Milwaukee but flipped in 2018, almost every participant told Favreau they wouldn’t yet commit to voting for the Democratic nominee in 2020. Some said it depends on who the nominee is. Others were open to voting for a third-party candidate instead of the Democrat. “None of them really like Trump, but they don’t have much love for Democratic politicians, Republican politicians, and especially the media, which they don’t trust at all,” Favreau said. “They really do see Trump as part of a broader political media culture that’s just out of control, silly, nasty, and not focused on what they care about.” A theme that surfaced again and again, not just about Democrats but about politics generally, was that the whole process is confusing, tedious, and off-putting—and that news organizations and social media do little to make sense of it.
Hamby also offers some rather humorous highlights of words and phrases the focus group participants associated with the top Democratic candidates:
In Milwaukee words that came to mind for Biden included “hugger,” “oil tycoon,” “cops,” and “old white money.” Six of the voters—all of whom had voted in the past two election cycles—responded with some variation of “nothing” or “I have nothing” when Biden was named. In Philadelphia the voters associated Biden with “crime bill,” “too old,” and “not fired up.” A grandmother and self-described “cat lady” named Jean said, “I heard he said a bad thing, I didn’t like it.” Biden elicited better reactions in Miami, where attendees said “Obama,” “experience,” and “well dressed” when the former vice president’s name was mentioned.
Sanders, too, was described as “too old” in all three cities, though many of the responses were, if not on message, at least message-adjacent. The Miami group associated Sanders with “crazy hair,” “grinny,” “free college,” and “wants to give away too many things for free.” The Philadelphia group said “your crazy uncle,” “health care,” “questionable health,” and “passionate hand talker.” In Milwaukee the Obama–Trump voters described Sanders as “for the people,” “crazy but in a good way,” “boisterous,” and “bold”—while three of the voters had no response to his name.
Warren inspired a few positive responses from people, including the words “energy” and “progressive,” but Favreau also noted that the participants “knew almost nothing about her,” Hamby notes. Buttigieg was almost totally unknown by any of the participants, one responding when asked about him, “Who dat?” (Read Hamby’s full piece for Vanity Fair here.)