Mainstream media keep telling us that Trump voters are sticking by their man, but are they really? And what do so-called swing voters actually want? Working America, the community organizing affiliate of the AFL-CIO, took to the streets and sidewalks of central Ohio earlier this year to find out. Matt Morrison, deputy director of Working America, is here with me to share the findings of the front porch focus group report and what lessons progressives can take from it into the 2018 election.
Laura Flanders:So, the front porch focus group. Why the name?
Matt Morrison:When we came up with the methodology, we wanted to understand is this a survey? Is it a poll? Is it a focus group? And we were just brainstorming and we realized what we're really doing is having extensive conversations with a large enough number of voters that we can draw inferences about what the trends are amongst different segments. But it ultimately isn't intended to be representative, but it's certainly intended to be informative.
Laura Flanders:Well, you talked to a lot of people. I mean, how many? Who? Why? Where?
Matt Morrison:We talked to, what? 976 voters for this particular project and this is one of a series of the front porch focus group series that we've done dating back to early 2016. Why we do this work? We know that by getting face-to-face with people, you can get not just the top lines of what the support levels are, but you can understand why they're supporting the candidates, the positions, the issues that are animating them.
Laura Flanders:So, that's why you didn't just call them up or send them an email survey?
Matt Morrison:Absolutely. We know that if I go and knock on your door, one out of three are gonna open that door and have a conversation with you. You're gonna really get a chance to listen to them and you don't have to work from a script. You have to work from what the human being is telling you. Are they busy? Do they have dinner on the stove? Do they really want you to come and sit down and have a smoke with them on the front porch?
Laura Flanders:I've raised money in my college years for the 9to5 organization of Working Women, and found just what you said. People will talk to you if you're standing on their doorstep. They'll even give you money. What did you find? What insights came out of doing all this kind of very labor-intensive work?
Matt Morrison:Well, for us, the lesson really learned from this is always listen more than you talk. And from that, we were able to hear a few clear insights. Number one, while Trump voters are by and large continuing to stick by him, they're very movable. What some 80% of the swing voters we spoke to, who are Trump voters to begin with, said, yes, they still approve of the job he's doing, but if you introduce real information that connects with their lives, like his tax policies, his workplace safety plans, more than half of them start to express doubts.
Laura Flanders:Give us a little bit more depth on that. Explain.
Matt Morrison:Sure. One of the examples comes from Delaware Township. This is about 50 miles north of Columbus. A fellow by the name of Jim was coming home ... he's a construction worker ... when our canvasser, Soren, approached him to talk about the front porch focus group project and we asked Jim a whole series of questions, one of which was, "Had you heard about Trump's proposal to roll back workplace safety regulations?" That got Jim thinking, "Hey, I got hurt on the job about 20 years ago. That's not what he promised." And, ultimately, the more we can introduce information that isn't so worked over ... that is tell people something they don't know, as opposed to telling them what they know is wrong ... the more we can introduce a different way of thinking.
Laura Flanders:We had a chance to talk with Soren, actually. He's one of your field organizers in Ohio. Here's some of what he had to say.
Soren Norris:This Spring, we talked to almost 1000 swing-type voters ... many who voted for Trump, some who voted for Clinton, but people that we identified as softer voters, not ideological ... throughout middle Ohio, within Columbus and in some of the rural areas around Columbus and also the suburbs. And what we were doing was engaging them on a lot of questions, really digging deep, story sharing, and connecting that to the candidates and why they voted for who they voted for, and then also seeing how we could pivot them away from Donald Trump.
There were five of us as a steady team working on this. Five days a week, we'd go out in the afternoons when people tend to be home, so we canvassed between four and nine o'clock. We did have a targeted list. We were looking at people that had an income between $25,000 and $75,00. So, solid middle class, working class people, and then, also, people that were very likely voters. So, not only did they vote in the presidential election, but they had voted in one of the recent mid-term elections. High propensity voters, working class voters. People that maybe hadn't voted only one party for the past 40 years.
I was attracted to this type of work because it's very real. There's not really much more real than engaging someone where they live, on their porch, or in their living room, a couple feet from them. The eye-to-eye contact, the story sharing. One thing that we do that's very powerful is we kind of talk about our stories, our personal struggles with these issues, to kind of get the voter to open up. A commercial, or a poll on a phone, could never be as powerful as a real human connection. The ability to introduce new information can really open them up and you can shed light and you're actually able to move voters in the moment, within that conversation, a lot stronger than other means. I think that's one of the reasons why I'm attracted to this work. I've really seen it work well.
We had a huge victory in 2011 on Senate Bill 5 here. Josh Kasich had attacked collect bargaining for the public sector unions. We were able to get out ahead, create the correct narrative for what was actually going on, and by having these face-to-face conversations really overwhelmingly defeat this at the ballot box. It really does work. I think the only limitation is we're not big enough. We don't have enough of these conversations. We don't cover all of the rural areas or all the inner city areas that need to be having these conversations. The only reason that the TV, the news media and the commercial drowns out our message is just because it's so much more widespread. We're limited by the numbers. But within one-on-one interaction, it's extremely powerful. People will really open up about what's going on in their life. You could never have that kind of connection over the phone or even over Skype. You need to be literally face-to-face and where you can see how they're living, how their kids are living, what's actually going on in their life.
A mistake a lot of campaigns make is that campaigns really get organized kind of last minute, just after Labor Day is when they start hitting the doors. It's a little too late because what we saw with this Trump project is if you really want to flip someone from one side to the other, it takes more than one conversation. We could get them to our side if they're already halfway there organically when we hit the door. It's gonna take multiple conversations and some time in-between those conversations. It needs to be started really early. The example I used in the Senate Bill 5 issue too here in 2011 that I worked on ... We had worked on it for about eight or nine months. So, we had talked to voters about it. We were doing some petitioning. We went back and talked to them again. If we had just started in the fall, it may not have been as effective. It really needs to be a full year-long cycle, which is kind of what's unique about our group. We keep paid professionals full-time, organizers going year round.
There's countless memorable stories. You're having these very deep and personal conversations ... It's not at every door. Not every person is gonna want to let you into their lives like that. But when you get the opening, and you have the skilled canvasser, you really can get people to open up and then connect the dots between their personal struggles for them and their family and the issues that the candidates are actually fighting for.
One example is Gertrude. I knocked on her door a couple of months ago. I think she's 84. It was a Trump household. It was her and her daughter. They invited me in. I came into the living room. Gertrude was kind of curled up in the corer reading a book. Very defensive. Her rationale: anyone was better than Obama. Kind of close minded, but her daughter was more engaging. I talked to them and they gave their reasons for voting for Trump, which was similar to a lot of folks. They're kind of sick of the direction things have gone. A lot of people have been left out of this economy. They have legitimate concerns that the economy's not working for them and that things aren't as good as they were 20 or 30 years ago. A lot of them voted for Trump in hope that some outsider could somehow bring back this strong economy that they remember from decades past, especially in the Midwest with the manufacturing and everything. Most of us know that's probably not gonna happen. It'd be nice if we could move in that direction.
They were a little bit defensive, but hopeful for Trump and I remember sharing one piece of information about HEAP. The heating assistance program ... Federal Heating Assistance Program that a lot of the low-income families in Ohio depend on. I think two out of five, actually, in central Ohio are on this program, and I talked about Trump's plan to cut drastically this program, maybe even eliminate funding for the program. And Gertrude's daughter literally sunk into her couch, I mean, when I said that, and then she just whispered up to me, "We're on HEAP." This is a little ranch house, a lower income neighborhood, and when you introduce these types of new information the voters response appropriately. They understand that if this is true ... and a lot of times, they'll say, "Well, if this tax plan is true, I'm gonna lose my support for him."
So, that really illustrates ... they were strong Trump. After that conversation, now, they're questioning their support. They would need another follow-up visit to push them all the way, and they would have to see some of these things materializing that we're talking about. It really illustrates that people are more movable than CNN and the national media is making people think they are. That's an example of someone moving halfway. Another door, when Trump's healthcare plan came up ... I forget his name, but let's say Donald. He was like in his seventies and his wife was in a wheelchair. He was concerned about healthcare costs and he had just heard, when the review of the two healthcare plans a go had come out, how this was going to impact raised premiums, potentially, especially on older folks. He said if this is true, his support's gone from Donald Trump. And we kind of heard the same thing over and over again when we talked about the tax plan. People said, well, if this tax plan actually goes forth where higher income people are disproportionately getting tax breaks, they're gonna withdraw their support for Trump.
Some people are organically moving, throughout these past couple of months, losing their support. And then when get to talk to them, we push them further down the scale as they see what's happening. Now, this isn't everyone. Obviously, some people are entrenched, partisan, will defend to the very end any Republican or Trump because they see him as a hero. But people that are actually open to new information and have some critical thinking ability, which a lot of these folks do. It doesn't matter if they have a low education level or a lower income level. They can connect the dots between policies that will hurt them or help them. They're totally movable. The national narrative is definitely off. I think that's the main takeaway from the project, is that people are moving on their own a little bit and we can move them even further with these conversations.