Two Pennsylvania focus groups of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 reflect a deepening challenge for Republicans as they try to escape the abortion bind that shattered their 2022 midterm dreams.
In fact, on abortion and other topics, many of the swing voters' responses to the overall Republican agenda were downright brutal, calling it "far far right" and suggesting that perhaps Republicans should go back to school. The focus groups, which were observed by Axios' Alexi McCammond, showed that most of the swing voters—including self-identified “pro-lifers”—believed Republicans and conservative judges were engaging in egregious overreach on abortion.
The groups, consisting of 14 voters, included seven registered Republicans, four Democrats and three independents.
Among the 14 swing voters, 13 had heard about a conservative judge's decision to ban usage of the abortion pill mifepristone and a dozen of them viewed it as extreme partisan overreach.
"I just think that they've been using it safely for 20 years, and I don't think that that changes my stance — I'm still still pro-life," said one male registered Republican, "but I still think that if they have to take that for their abortion, they should have the option."
Another woman said she was "torn" because she is “pro-life” but, she added, for people who don't share her beliefs, "I'm not crazy about the government telling them what they can do."
"Bingo," responded another man.
"That's between them and their God," added another “pro-life” woman and registered Republican. But abortion wasn’t the only flashpoint—panelists also largely rejected Republicans’ "anti-woke" messaging. To test this, the groups were shown GOP talking points consisting of a handful of statements, including: censoring books that cover sexual violence or underage sex; banning trans girls from playing in "girls' sports"; banning K-3 classroom teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity because "we should not be telling second graders they can choose their gender"; opposing critical race theory because it "teaches our kids to hate our country and hate each other"; and opposing "woke" cities and states that have "harmed public safety by coddling criminals" and pushing to "defund the police."
While some of the voters supported individual statements, only three of the 14 said a candidate pushing this group of positions would be "attractive” to them, while most of them were turned off by the slate of positions as a whole.
"If it was worded by the politician that exact way, I would kind of feel like they were taking something that was actually not such a terrible thing and making it look so sinister," said a male voter.
"It's very much pandering to a very specific demographic," said one woman. "I also have problems with the whole concept of banning books. I mean, quite honestly, if you go by those rules, the Bible should be banned—read the Old Testament."
Indeed, censorship and learning bans proved uniquely unpopular.
“It's a free country last time I checked—at least we hope it is," quipped another woman.
More broadly, one man commented on the sheer irrelevance of the entire anti-woke agenda.
"I really feel like the politicians should focus on things that actually matter to their constituents and I really feel like they're going up in the weeds with this kind of stuff and maybe they should really take a civics class and understand politics a little bit better," he said.
Even to one of the three voters who mainly supported the GOP positions, the culture war stances seemed misplaced in this environment. "In the economy we're in now, I probably lean toward the more economic stuff because that's more my concern," he said. "I mean, I'm not going to be worried about girls sports if I don't have a job."
Finally, the swing voters thoroughly dismissed Republican smears of the U.S. justice system. None of them think the entire criminal justice system has been weaponized against Republicans. None of them think Donald Trump has been victimized. None of them think the FBI and Department of Justice should be defunded, as Trump and other Republicans have called for.
Ten of the 14 said Trump is being prosecuted for legitimate reasons.
Rich Thau, president of Engagious and the focus group moderator, called the message from swing voters "unambiguous." "If the GOP wants to win back Pennsylvania, it had better moderate on abortion, avoid strident anti-wokeism, and distance itself from former President Trump’s outlandish claims about his prosecution,” he said.
By the same token, Democrats have a mile-wide lane open to attack Republicans on everything from anti-abortion zealotry and anti-wokeism to Trump and GOP cries of unjust victimization.
In fact, the Republican agenda and messaging tested so poorly among swing voters in a must-get battleground that it would be political malpractice not to attack the GOP's culture war obsession.
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Markos and Kerry are joined by Aaron Rupar today to discuss what he is seeing in the right-wing media landscape. Rupar is an independent journalist whose Public Notice Substack is a must-read for those who want to know how truly outrageous the conservative movement is. We are addicted to his Twitter account, with its never-ending stream of Republican lunacy all captured on video.