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Focus group: Pennsylvania swing voters stand with Trump on Iran

Illustration of President Trump in the shadow of the Iranian flag
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Pool/Getty Pool

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Swing voters here are standing behind President Trump's decision to launch an airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, but if it leads to all-out war they'd question the president's wisdom and handling of national security.

Why it matters: Their comments suggest these voters back Trump on the Iran strike more solidly than the public at large — though some are weary of foreign wars and made it clear they want them to end.

  • That was a main takeaway from our Engagious/FPG focus group this week, which included 11 people who flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
  • The focus group session was held on Monday, a day before Iran's retaliatory strikes.
  • While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, these responses show how some voters are thinking and talking about the 2020 election in crucial counties.

Between the lines: This small group of voters in a key state told us that national security issues are even more important to their 2020 vote than the economy, presenting a potential dilemma for Trump if the conflict doesn't end with Iran's retaliatory strikes.

  • But that also suggests there's a potential for a greater political upside for the president on the Iran issue, because he'll get a lot of credit from these folks if the U.S. and Iran succeed in de-escalating the crisis.
  • In fact, some indicated they're slightly more likely to vote for him again in 2020 — even if we did enter a war with Iran.
  • When asked what these voters like about the president politically, a handful said things like, "He tells it like it is" and "he takes the bull by the horns."

What they're saying: "I respect his decision. He's our president. He knows more than we know and you just have to trust that it's in the best interest of us people to do something like that," said 51-year-old Ron B.

  • Others felt that the president has been held back from doing what he really wants to do, and this was an example of him taking charge.
  • Mark S., 49, said the airstrike was a good decision because it signals to Iran "that we're not going to sit here and just have you kill our people for no apparent reason. And us to sit there and say, okay, it's fine."

Yes, but: Some in the group signaled this issue could make them lose faith in President Trump. "It's time that we take care of home and stop getting ourselves involved in these other situations that we don't need to be in," said 72-year-old Don E.

  • "I'm supportive of his actions if his people had advised him that that was the thing to do, but that's a question mark. How many more wars are we going to go through?" he asked.
  • One participant, Joe W., 38, said it felt like an intentional distraction from impeachment. "It depends on if we trust the information that he was giving us, ... or it's just a stunt for him because of the impeachment," he said.
"If an all-out war, that means his information wasn't clear and he was doing it for self-indulgent purposes, I would say. If that was the case, he doesn't deserve to be president. It's not a time to be playing with the fate of the world."
— Joe W., an Obama/Trump swing voter in Wilkes-Barre.

Why Wilkes-Barre matters: Trump won Luzerne County by nearly 20 percentage points in the last presidential election and he captured the state's 20 electoral votes. Both parties are working hard to win Pennsylvania in 2020, but 2016 results suggest he's got a stronghold on this part of the state.

Reality check: While a slice of the electorate is enamored with Trump, the country at large is feeling differently. A USA Today/Ipsos poll found 55% of Americans surveyed said the fatal airstrike made the United States less safe, and 52% called the action "reckless."