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Focus group: Trump's vulnerabilities with Minnesota swing voters

Illustration of a tic-tac-toe game with elephants and donkeys
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

EDINA, Minn. — President Trump's absence of a plan on health care and on Social Security — compounded with voters' economic anxiety about a looming recession — could make him vulnerable with some swing voters here come 2020.

  • That was the main takeaway from our Engagious/FPG focus group last week, which included 7 people who flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, and 4 who switched from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

Why it matters: These voters don't feel that Trump is talking about the issues they care about most.

  • And while he can boast about a growing economy, that might not help much with some folks here if they feel like it's not working for them and their families.
  • 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.

The other side: The problem for Democrats is that most of these swing voters (7 of the 11) don’t believe the presidential candidates running against Trump are talking about the issues they care about most, either.

  • They would like to hear 2020 Democrats talk about how to continue the country’s economic success and their plans for infrastructure.

Why Minnesota matters: No Republican has won the state since Richard Nixon in 1972. Yet Trump's re-election campaign has made Minnesota an early target heading into the next presidential election.

  • Despite winning 78 of the 87 counties here, he still lost to Hillary Clinton.
  • And he's been vocal about his personal challenge to change that this time around, which has included personal attacks against Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar.
  • "In 2016 I almost won Minnesota. In 2020, because of America hating anti-Semite Rep. Omar, & the fact that Minnesota is having its best economic year ever, I will win the State!" he tweeted.

What they're saying: "I was disappointed [in Trump]. He promised a health care plan that was much better than Obama’s and cheaper, but then I found out he didn’t have any plan when he came into office," said 66-year-old Dennis Pearson, who supported Trump in 2016.

  • "That frustrated me because he was knocking Obamacare for 2 years," he added.
  • Most participants said they don't think Trump is doing enough to make health care affordable for them and their families.
  • Several complained that he "spends all this time just criticizing the other people and doesn't do anything positive" on health care, as one Trump voter put it. Others said he's made "zero effort" to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

Both Obama/Trump and Romney/Clinton voters are dissatisfied with President Trump's handling of Social Security. We asked them to rate on a scale from zero to 10 (“not at all satisfied” to “very satisfied”) if they think he's doing all he can to ensure Social Security will be sound during their old age. Trump voters gave him an average score of 4.4 and Clinton voters 1.5.

  • They said they have no idea what he's doing to address this issue, and several participants who are retired lamented what they view as high taxes on their Social Security benefits.
  • "I don't think I've heard much about it [from Trump]," said 55-year-old Virgina Bailey.
  • "I'm not aware that he's doing anything on Social Security," said Jack W., a Romney/Clinton voter.
  • They want him to do things like increase the benefits and the funding for it, and ensure that they will receive it once they retire.

Economic concerns loomed large for this group. If an economic recession were to occur before the next election, many of these Trump voters would ditch him.

  • "It’s not the 1950s anymore — you can’t live off of 1 income," said 34-year-old Theresa Nieswaag, who said she works part-time making $18 an hour and struggles to find higher wages in the area. She voted for Trump in 2016, but won't this time around. "There’s gotta be someone better than him."
  • Others talked about the ongoing trade negotiations with China, which some thought could lead to greater economic growth if it works out.
  • But several are concerned about the unknowns on this front, saying if it fails, it will lead to an economic recession, which will make them vote against Trump in 2020.

Don't forget this blast from the past: While running for U.S. Senate in 2002, Republican candidate Elizabeth Dole held up a blank piece of paper during a debate to symbolize her opponent's Social Security plan. She won the election by 8.5 percentage points.