Elections

After presidential debate, Clinton falters among some focus group voters in swing state

Focus group of North Carolina voters discuss the first presidential debate

On September 26, 2016, The Charlotte Observer gathered 21 mostly undecided North Carolina voters to watch the first presidential debate. After it ended, political reporters Tim Funk and David Lightman led a discussion streamed in real time via Fac
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On September 26, 2016, The Charlotte Observer gathered 21 mostly undecided North Carolina voters to watch the first presidential debate. After it ended, political reporters Tim Funk and David Lightman led a discussion streamed in real time via Fac

Kae Roberts and Jay Eardly were leaning toward Hillary Clinton before Monday night’s debate.

By the end, they had both pulled away.

John Kokos and Hank Federal were undecided going in, potential Clinton backers.

By the end, they’d ruled her out.

Indeed, while polls found that Clinton had won the first general-election debate with Donald Trump on Monday, she may not have won actual votes. And she may even have lost some, at least in the battleground state of North Carolina.

In a focus group of 21 voters from around Charlotte conducted by McClatchy and The Charlotte Observer, four who had been up for grabs before the debate had moved away from her by the end.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went to head-to-head in the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York on Monday. They discussed jobs, racial divisions and national security with many personal jabs thrown in between. The debate,

The racially diverse group comprised seven Republicans, six Democrats, seven unaffiliated voters and one Libertarian. Their votes are crucial in one of the nation’s key swing states, one in which Trump and Clinton are neck-and-neck in the most recent polls. They live in or around a city rocked in recent days by turmoil over last week’s police shooting of an African-American man.

That the state is pivotal is clear. Clinton was campaigning in Raleigh on Tuesday. Trump had planned to make a post-debate trip to Charlotte but agreed to reschedule in the wake of the shooting and violence, which taxed local authorities. He’s expected in the state soon.

The closeness of the race – even after a seeming Clinton win in the debate – was underscored in the hourlong discussion with voters after watching the debate at Queens University of Charlotte.

For the four who emerged less impressed by Clinton, it was the seeming familiarity of her proposals for the economy and national security that was a turnoff.

Roberts, who is unaffiliated with a party, wrote in her notes several times during the debate that Clinton offered “pie in the sky” ideas. By debate’s end, she had moved from leaning toward Clinton to undecided.

“The things she says she’s going to do, there’s no substance behind it,” Roberts said.

One potential winner in the focus group was Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who benefited largely because so many voters were annoyed at both Trump and Clinton.

“I was looking for Hillary to convince me, but I’m not getting the Hillary I’m looking for,” particularly on taxes, said Eardly, an unaffiliated voter. By the end of the debate, he’d moved from Clinton to considering Johnson.

Kokos, who works in Hickory, said before the debate he was undecided. Afterward, he ruled out Clinton and appeared open to either Johnson or Trump. “The things she said were out of an old playbook,” he said.

Before the debate, the tally was nine Clinton, three Trump, six undecided and three Johnson. Afterward, it became seven Clinton, three Trump, six undecided and five Johnson.

There were instances of non-responsiveness.

Kae Roberts, an unaffiliated voter, commenting on the debate

Johnson, said supporters, was an agent of change, but he didn’t have Trump’s bombast. While they didn’t have many specific reasons for moving his way, they were intrigued.

“I wish he’d been at the debate,” said Federal, a Republican who was undecided before the debate.

Many thought Clinton did better on style and debating points, but she didn’t move them. “Hillary was much cleaner in her evasions,” said Federal, who called Trump “bombastic.”

Clinton did get accolades from the four African-American voters in the group. They recoiled at Trump’s notion that their communities are awful places. They praised Clinton for backing community policing and promoting dialogue between police and community leaders.

“She has the things we need to change,” said the Rev. Ray Shawn McKinnon, who had been a supporter of Clinton Democratic-nomination rival Bernie Sanders but is now squarely for her.

Some refuse to believe we made progress.

Rev. Ray Shawn McKinnon, a Democrat, commenting on Donald Trump’s view of the black community

Clinton’s challenge among black voters is not necessarily to win more support – polls find her with a huge lead over Trump – but to get them to turn out.

Aisha Dew, who had chaired Sanders’ North Carolina campaign, came away pleased at what she’d heard Monday. “Sanders was stronger on social justice,” she said, but Clinton convinced her she could be equally strong.

“She checked off a lot of the boxes Bernie had,” added Hiwot Hailu, a Queens University student who had been leaning toward Clinton and found that the debate helped solidify her support.

Trump had only three supporters before the debate, but he held on to them.

“I agree we’re in a bubble,” said Claire Mahoney, who had supported Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the Republican primary over Trump.

She’s now all for Trump, particularly as he argued the nation’s economy is being artificially propped up by historically low interest rates and that the Federal Reserve Board bows to political pressure. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenour, another Rubio backer, saw Trump’s idea of lowering taxes as an important job creator.

But Trump couldn’t capitalize on the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton. The debate, said James Brown, an unaffiliated voter, “was like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. I got absolutely nothing out of this.” He’s considering Johnson.

“Clinton was more of the same, but Trump presented himself as very rough, unpolished,” said John Fitzgerald, an unaffiliated voter.

Asked whether they could see either Clinton or Trump as president, eight said neither of them qualified.

Yet most said they would tune in to the next round of debates, including the vice presidential candidates next Tuesday and Trump and Clinton again on Oct. 9 and 19. But before they finally make up their minds, they want specifics and civility.

“I’d like to see each candidate talk about the other side’s issues,” said Marcus Ramos-Pearson, who’s leaning toward Clinton. “I want to see Donald Trump talk more about social justice.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said that the Rev. Ray Shawn McKinnon does not support Hillary Clinton. He does now support her.

Funk reports for The Charlotte Observer.

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