SARAH: Hi. This is Sarah (ph) in Dallas, Texas, where the NPR Pol Pod (ph) is keeping me company while I do the dishes again. I'm so grateful there's a new episode almost every night because there are also dishes in my sink almost every night. This podcast was recorded at...
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
I live this struggle every night.
DETROW: It is 12:35 Eastern on Monday, August 10.
SARAH: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll probably still have some dirty dishes in my sink. All righty (ph), enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DETROW: But the problem - like, a podcast helps when you're doing the dishes. But then you have to have it so loud because the water - then you turn it off, and you feel deaf and embarrassed. At least, this is me projecting...
DETROW: ...My personal feelings in a podcast. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I'm Juana Summers. I cover demographics and culture.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DETROW: So we just identified one of the big challenges of the pandemic, and that is doing dishes in your house every single day.
DETROW: But for us reporters, there is a second big challenge to this pandemic. And that is that it's really hard to get out into the world and talk to voters during this presidential campaign, so we made an attempt to try and fix that a little bit. NPR and Marist College recently put together our own focus group in a key state - Arizona - to try to understand what voters are thinking about the presidential election. And, Domenico, before we talk about the basic setup of this focus group, remind us why Arizona is such a key state this year.
MONTANARO: Well, Arizona is one of those big battleground states, at least half a dozen of them that are either in the toss-up or lean in, you know, maybe a Democratic direction for some of these places. But, you know, it's a new battleground. It's in the Sun Belt. It's a changing demographic state. And, you know, it's a place that Hillary Clinton only lost by about 3 1/2 percentage points. And if Joe Biden could put in Arizona into his win column, he wouldn't need a Wisconsin, for example, if he were to win Michigan and Pennsylvania. So, you know, it really expands the map for Democrat Joe Biden, and it's another place that President Trump has to defend.
DETROW: So, Juana, obviously the typical focus group set-up of a bunch of undecided voters sitting around a table or, like, a horseshoe of desks or whatever with a moderator - that was not happening. What was this focus group like? And who was in it?
SUMMERS: You're absolutely right. That certainly could not and did not happen. Instead, we got to witness this conversation like we're experiencing most everything else right now - online, looking at people on their little Zoom (ph) boxes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Zoom, as you know. Normally, we do these things in a room. You would drive to a conference room in Mesa or something, and we'd all sit around a table and do this. In a way, this makes it a lot easier because we don't have to leave the comfort of our own home. In a way, it makes it harder, though.
SUMMERS: It pulled together Biden supporters, Trump supporters, undecided voters who talked about a little bit of everything over the course of an hour.
STEPHANIE: I'm Stephanie (ph). I'm originally from Iowa. I grew up in a really small town - very, very, very small town.
TROY: I'm Troy (ph). I'm 57, and I've lived here (unintelligible). I was born in Chandler. I guess I'm here for good, whether elected or not.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).
SHYLA: Hi, I'm Shyla (ph). I grew up in Ohio - northeast Ohio but have been in Arizona for a couple years now.
DETROW: So let's walk through some of the topics they talked about. And, obviously, we will start with the coronavirus. Arizona is one of those states that saw a big wave over the last couple of months. How did the people in this group see the state of affairs?
MONTANARO: Well, they really did not think that things were going well at all in their state when it comes to coronavirus; how their governor is handling it, by the way. Doug Ducey, a Republican - he has seen his disapproval rating jump in the last couple of months to almost two-thirds of people disapproving of the job he's doing. And even some of the undecided people who, you know, were open to Ducey's message, open to Trump's message and thought that the state should open, that businesses should open, now said in hindsight, it looks like the wrong decision.
DETROW: We view everything through partisan lenses. Was there a difference between how the people supporting Trump versus Biden versus undecided viewed just how things were going with the coronavirus?
SUMMERS: Yes and no. I heard from all of the participants. They all agreed, you know, Arizona is a hot spot. None of them had great things to say about how the government and, particularly, their governor has been handling COVID. They talked about some of them having concerns about mental health, talked about wearing masks. The partisan breakdowns come, I think, on kind of the who's-to-blame question in the fact that this is all not going well with more folks who lean towards Biden or more Democratic suggesting that these were systemic failures from the top all the way down; whereas some of the folks who were either undecided or Republican-leaning seemed to focus, to me at least, a little bit more on people's personal choices they were making. I think of one of the Republicans who supported President Trump talking to us about how he wore his mask all the time because he wanted to protect himself from others, but he still didn't have great things to say about Gov. Ducey's handling of this.
MONTANARO: Yeah. And, you know, the Democrats, obviously - you expect them to be a little bit sharper when it comes to talking about the governor and not liking him. One - Stephanie, who was a Biden supporter - said that she thinks her governor is a joke.
STEPHANIE: He's in the top leadership position for our state, and he decided to let each county decide if they were going to wear a mask or not when we're showing numbers that are ranking, you know, top five out of 50 states. To me, you know, pull up your pants and do what you got to do, you know? Like...
MONTANARO: Which is one of those quotes - you know, you sort of step back and you're like, OK. You know, it's a quotable thing. But even, you know, as Juana was talking about, Alan (ph), who is this Trump supporter - you know, he said, I think they're just testing more. I don't think that we're that bad at all. And yet, he's still saying that he's wearing a mask when he's going out to restaurants.
ALAN: Well, I've been to a couple of restaurants in the last two weeks. And it says, wear your mask when you walk in, and then you can take it off when you sit down. But there's, you know, about half the people just walked in from the outside without masks on, and it does upset me.
MONTANARO: So you get the sense that everybody is realizing that coronavirus is real and here to stay and that there are mitigation steps that need to be taken.
DETROW: So how much, though, was coronavirus the issue that they were deciding the presidential vote on compared to every other issue out there?
MONTANARO: Well, again, it depends on who you're talking about. I mean, the Biden supporters, obviously, think Trump has done everything wrong. The Trump supporters - you know, they're still voting for him. And, largely, it's because of their views, let's say, about government. Shyla was another Trump supporter who, you know, essentially said that she just thinks government is doing too much and that even though this is a choice of a lesser of two evils - this election, she said, times a hundred compared to 2016 - she's still voting for Trump because of her views, like government just does too many things.
DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will talk about how this group of voters viewed protests over racism and what they think about Joe Biden's impending vice presidential pick.
And we're back. We're talking about a focus group that NPR and Marist College conducted with voters in Arizona, which is a key swing state this year. We talked about how they view coronavirus, so let's look at the other big storyline of 2020. And that is protests over racism and injustice that have been a humongous storyline throughout the summer. So how did this group of voters view the protests that have been happening all over the country, all over the world all summer?
SUMMERS: Yeah, so this is a conversation that actually started out with a lot of consensus. All of the participants seemed to agree that the uprisings that we've seen around systemic racism and police brutality had caused them to reconsider what they thought they knew about structural racism. A lot of them talked about having experienced a switch or had a switch flip that made them think about systemic racism differently. This is something that Stephanie, who's one of the Biden supporters, talked about at length. She talked about what it felt like when she first saw the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on the sidelines before a game during the national anthem and how, at one point, she saw that as disrespect of the flag. But now...
STEPHANIE: I finally understand what he - why he did it. He didn't do it for him. There was no benefit for him for taking that knee. And that doesn't mean that I agree that I would do it, right? But I now have put myself in those, like - in his position of taking that role and - or taking his platform and doing something with it.
MONTANARO: Yeah, that was a really telling moment in this entire thing. I also thought it was interesting because Courtney (ph), who I talked to afterward who's an undecided voter - she seemed particularly vulnerable to a message on crime. You know, she talked about a lot of these specific anecdotes about crime upticks, but she didn't blame Joe Biden, for example, you know, or be scared about Joe Biden as a potential president for crime. She thought it was more about the economy - the downturn in the economy and potential decline in mental illness or people who've been in quarantine, you know, during this pandemic. And I think the real problem for President Trump is she doesn't believe the messenger. When I asked her about President Trump's views on race, this is some of what she had to say.
COURTNEY: I think he's insensitive to minorities. He's insensitive to anyone who has not had the opportunities that he's had. He just sort of - he has not had a realistic life. His kids have had a realistic life (ph). He's out of touch. I don't listen to what he has to say about Black Lives Matter or any of that because I think he doesn't have a good perspective on it.
MONTANARO: And I think that makes it really difficult if you're trying to hammer Joe Biden on crime, that, you know, you've got to have a good messenger on that. And, you know, here you have an undecided voter who's saying she just doesn't believe President Trump on that issue.
DETROW: Yeah. So one other big storyline that's coming any day this week - there is a small chance it will have been announced by the time people are listening to this podcast, and that is Joe Biden naming his running mate. He definitely has to name her at some point this week because the virtual Democratic convention is next week. Did you get a sense that any of these voters, particularly the people who haven't quite made up their mind yet, care about who Biden picks and how much that will influence their choice?
SUMMERS: Yeah, so I actually had a conversation with Alan, who, as we said earlier, is a Trump supporter, about this exact issue. We chatted a couple days after this focus group happened, and he was talking to me about, you know, the news and what he's seeing. And he mentioned that he thought a lot of people might change their minds and decide to support Joe Biden depending on who he picked as his running mate. And I asked Alan, you know, what did he think? Who could possibly be on the short list of VP candidates that might make him, a Trump voter, change his mind? And he came up with an interesting answer. He said Michelle Obama, actually.
ALAN: Whoever he picks is, you know - of course, they'll have to be - look at their record. We'll have to look at their record and see what they've done. And, of course, if it's Michelle Obama, that's another story (laughter).
SUMMERS: And this is someone who had told me that he voted for Democrats his entire life. That changed about six years ago, when he began to vote for Republicans, including President Trump.
DETROW: Juana, anything else from this group of voters jump out to you?
SUMMERS: I think one of the things that was really interesting to me in listening to them is a number of these people actually brought up mental health. It's something I've been certainly thinking a lot about as we're going months and months into this pandemic.
SUMMERS: And about half of this group raised that as a long-term concern. And I think as we have these competing situations of the pandemic, the uprising that we're having over systemic racism and, of course, the final sprint towards an election, it's something that's top of mind and certainly that was top of mind for these voters in a really important state.
MONTANARO: That leads to the other big takeaway here - is that this election is about President Trump and his handling of these major issues - coronavirus, race relations and the economy. And if he can't be seen as marginally - at least marginally doing better on these issues, he's going to struggle. And for the undecided voters, you know, Giovanni (ph) was one undecided voter. He's - this is going to be his first time voting in a presidential election. He said that coronavirus should have been handled earlier, that there are - he's a cashier and that his place of work was not outfitted until much later with some of the protective gear. His father, by the way - this hitting very close to home - was diagnosed with COVID-19. And he said this has all made him pretty angry. He's not impressed with Trump or Biden, but it very well may make him vote this fall.
DETROW: Yeah. And as of this weekend, more than 5 million Americans find themselves in a similar position, diagnosed with COVID-19.
All right. There is a lot more on this focus group and other takeaways from it on npr.org. Domenico wrote a whole story about it. You can also subscribe to our POLITICS newsletter. It's a roundup of our best online analysis at npr.org/politicsnewsletter. You can also follow the link in the description of this episode.
I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover demographics and culture.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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