Voters like Chris Coughenour, a Pittsburgh-area truck driver, may represent presidential candidate Donald Trump’s biggest challenge. Those like Cherie Spena, a hair stylist, and Brian Easter, a limo driver, are his best hope.
Together, they explain why, despite recent controversies, Trump remains competitive in the Rust Belt and, as a result, in the election.
“I was a big Trump fan,” Coughenour said during a focus group of Pennsylvania voters Monday in Pittsburgh. “He is a good businessman and all that. But, at the same time, he doesn’t know much about being president and anything to do with government.”
As a result, although the 24-year-old Republican agrees on issues with Trump, he is thinking of voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
But comments by Spena, 48, an independent who initially called herself undecided, made clear she leans toward the presumptive Republican nominee. “I trust him,” she said. “He just makes me feel very comfortable and safe.”
And Easter, 37, an independent who initially tended toward Democrat Hillary Clinton and worried Trump’s loose tongue “could cause a war,” said he is becoming more comfortable with the idea of voting for Trump. “He’s more honest,” he said.
Clinton leads most national polls, and public polls show the race very close in Pennsylvania, which Democrats have carried six straight times. Trump may have to win it to win the White House.
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He should benefit from the fact that Pennsylvania’s population is older, whiter and less-educated. That means votes from people like Coughenour, Spena and Easter in western Pennsylvania’s blue-collar suburbs could offset Democratic strength in Philadelphia and its white-collar, upscale suburbs.
Only one of 11 participants in the focus group conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania’s nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center had a four-year college degree — a pro-Clinton 27-year-old web designer. Most were either Republicans or independents.
The Trump voters seemed more certain in their opinions than those tending to Clinton. For example, though Danyale Victor, 45, an African-American homemaker, said she is “a big supporter” of Clinton and considers Trump “a racist,” she waffled on voting for the former secretary of state because Clinton is a woman and “I don’t think she can run the country.”
On the other hand, Raymond Fisher, 50, a Republican maintenance man, said that, while he doubts Trump “is prepared for what he’s going to get,” he’s solidly behind him. “I think he will bring back manufacturing to this country,” he said. “I think he stands a better chance of that than Hillary.”
One striking aspect of the discussion was the absence, except in vague references, of many hot-button issues that have dominated daily cable news and newspaper coverage of the campaign, such as Trump’s advocacy of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, his call for banning Muslim immigrants and his recent denunciation of an Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage, plus the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email server.
When asked directly about the wall, about half supported it and seemed confident it would be built. But even those backing Trump’s call for banning Muslim immigration were skeptical it would happen.
Still, neither that nor his lack of governmental experience bothered his supporters, who like the fact that Trump is not a politician. “He’s unapologetic, which I think is kind of nice because it’s a change from those dirty politicians,” said Dara Held, 40, a stay-at-home mother who sells jewelry and purses. “He’s not that. He’s a businessman.”
Sarah MajKowski, the pro-Clinton web designer, agreed Trump was honest but likened him to “the way a child is honest because they don’t know any better.”
On the other hand, many comments about Clinton echoed the finding in polls that many voters consider her dishonest.
“I lost respect for her as a woman when she had an issue with her husband and never addressed it,” said Spena, the independent leaning to Trump. Megan Carpenter, 32, a homemaker and pro-Trump Republican, questioned “her credibility,” declaring: “Her lack of accountability really just grates on me.”
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