What Democratic and Republican Voters Really Think About the State of America

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“What were some of the biggest things that happened in 2021?”

That was the opening question to two very different focus groups of voters convened by Times Opinion this week. The wide-open question was intended to see what was top of mind for the two separate groups — nine Democrats and eight Republicans from across the country — who weren’t told the discussions would focus on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the state of democracy in America. Unprompted, the Democrats started off with these answers:

“The Capitol in January.”



And the Republicans started off with these answers:

“The vaccine. More and more people getting vaccinated.”

“The economy started to go bad.”

“The price of everything going up, and we’re back to $50 fill-ups.”

The moderator of the Democratic focus group, Margie Omero, and I weren’t expecting these participants (and others who followed suit) to bring up the Capitol attack right away, given all the news and challenges of 2021. And while I wasn’t surprised that some Republican participants, when asked by moderator Kristen Soltis Anderson for one-word reactions to “Jan. 6,” said they thought it was “way overblown” and “misrepresented,” I was struck that other Republicans defied Trumpian orthodoxy and reacted to Jan. 6 by saying “scary” and “definitely Trump.”

Those early moments of the focus groups were a taste of the unexpected, illuminating and nuanced opinions that surfaced over the course of the discussions, which we’ve published today as edited transcripts (along with video clips). By using roughly the same questions for each group, we saw some of the predictable partisan divides, but also some overlap: Not only Republicans, but Democrats had some empathy for some of the Americans who stormed the Capitol, seeing them ordinarily as people who had real, understandable frustrations with “the system.” The rioters took it too far, but their frustrations, with the parties, with Washington, seemed recognizable to some of the Democrats, as my colleague Laura Reston pointed out.

These focus groups are the first in a new series by Times Opinion: We want to explore the views of Americans on the most critical and urgent questions and issues of the moment. While we publish dozens of guest essays and columns a week by experts and veteran writers, we also wanted to find new ways to explore and hear the opinions of wider cross sections of Americans. The focus groups are one small way to listen to the unfiltered voices of people talking about how they see America and its future, and to expand the role of commentary and opinion journalism to include voters who often feel voiceless in the national conversation.

We wanted to kick off the focus groups with a discussion of the health of American democracy, a core priority for Times Opinion and a subject explored with great depth in several guest essays this week about Jan. 6. Rather than hold one focus group featuring just Democrats or Republicans (generally, I’ve learned, focus groups don’t mix them!), we decided to hold two groups to be able to hear from members of both parties. The firms of Omero and Soltis Anderson oversaw the selection of the participants, striving for a diverse mix that reflected the makeup of the parties. The Times paid Omero and Soltis Anderson to organize and lead these focus groups; they do similar work for political candidates, parties and interest groups.

There were plenty of divisions: The Democrats largely rated the health of our democracy as in “critical condition,” while the Republicans veered largely between “poor” and “fair.” Several Democrats were focused on blaming the system of government and politics in America for the state of democracy and the events of Jan. 6., and there was strong hunger among them for radical change — amendments to the Constitution, the abolition of the Electoral College, more term limits, lobbying reform. For some Republicans, the threat to democracy came more from government mandates and guidance on Covid-19, and an unfounded claim that Democrats would use the pandemic to push for more mail-in voting in 2024.

But there was also dissatisfaction with their own party leaders.

Republicans were frustrated with G.O.P. officials whom they viewed as driven purely by self-interest. Several Republicans were willing to criticize Donald Trump, but they did not like the shows of disloyalty by his cabinet members and allies who publicly criticized him. And, as Soltis Anderson noted, some Republicans argued that the rioters were separate from the “Stop the Steal” protesters on Jan. 6. (“Trump’s people don’t act like that,” one Republican said of the rioters.)

Several Democrats, for their part, felt that lobbyists and moneyed interests ruled Washington, and were frustrated that those responsible for the events on Jan. 6 had not been brought to justice. “Democrats didn’t tell us it was time to move on,” Omero said. “They see rioters’ prison requests for organic food, or subpoenas ignored by Trump’s inner circle, and want more scrutiny, not less.”

Most of the Democratic participants voted for President Biden in 2020, but as of now only one definitely wanted to see him run again in 2024. (“What are the options?” asked another.) As for Trump, who likes to boast that his base wants him to run again, five of the eight Republican participants don’t want him to run again. (One interesting commonality: Several of the Democrats praised former Vice President Mike Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, and the Republicans were far less scathing about him than Trump has been at times.)

Whether they saw Jan. 6 as “just another day” or like “the Civil War,” there was one abiding through line of unity between the groups: care and concern about the future of America, and uncertainty about what the 2024 presidential election would bring for our democracy — one of many issues that we’ll explore in future focus groups.

Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor. He joined the Times in 2005 from The Boston Globe, and has served as the Politics editor, a deputy editor in Culture, and a reporter covering two presidential campaigns, theater and New York politics.

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