Like the minor earthquake that recently rumbled through Kansas City, Sunday’s presidential debate swayed a few limbs and rattled some windows but did not fundamentally change the ground beneath the race, Democrats and some Republicans said Monday.
That conclusion seemed to mirror the discussion among more than a dozen local voters who took part in a debate-watching focus group sponsored by The Star and McClatchy on Sunday.
Some participants shifted their views during the debate, but only slightly — some closer to Hillary Clinton, or farther away; some moved toward or away from Donald Trump; others became more uncertain of their choice.
But no one flipped fully from one candidate to the other.
Tim Melin, a 31-year old Missourian who works in purchasing, was typical. He was leaning to Trump at the start of the debate, praised Clinton for her directness during the exchange — yet was even more strongly for Trump after the St. Louis debate stage emptied.
“I vehemently disagree with her stances,” Melin said. He is particularly concerned about Clinton’s potential appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet Clinton “actually answered questions,” Melin said. “She didn’t go into some stupid rhetoric about something that doesn’t matter.”
Participants seemed disappointed with their presidential choices. At one point, the group seemed to reach a general agreement — their votes were more about disliking one candidate or the other, than they were support for either candidate.
“Trump just from a character standpoint is completely unqualified,” said Thomas Randolph, a law student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I will not vote Hillary,” said Gary Osterhaus of Kansas City. “But I don’t know that I would vote Trump right now either.”
Most participants agreed Trump had improved his performance since the first debate, which almost everyone saw as a disaster. He interrupted Clinton less frequently, they said.
Nationally, a CNN post-debate poll found 57 percent thought Clinton won the debate while 34 percent gave the victory to Trump.
But 63 percent said Trump did better than they expected, and 60 percent said Clinton did worse than anticipated. That roughly reflected the views of the focus group.
As a result, the Republican appeared to stop the political bleeding that threatened his presidential campaign and perhaps his Republican Party, at least in the minds of some voters.
But even Trump supporters in the focus group admitted the bar for their candidate was exceedingly low at the start of the debate. The weekend disclosure of an 11-year-old tape containing Trump’s lascivious comments provoked a crisis in his campaign and a stampede of some Republicans away from his candidacy.
All of the focus group participants were aware of the controversy, and thought it reflected poorly on Trump. The candidate’s decision to attack Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct did not help, with several voters saying they did not like it and that it drove them more into Hillary Clinton’s camp.
“I don’t think that’s an effective attack,” said Alex Boyer, 26. “Attacking Bill Clinton through Hillary Clinton is the very definition of hypocrisy.”
Boyer said he’ll vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee.
Jazmine Clark, 21, of Kansas City, moved solidly into Hillary Clinton’s camp. She saw no reason for Trump to bring up Clinton’s husband, since he isn’t running for office. “That’s not her battle,” she said.
Jared Campbell called her “poised and definitely presidential” in the debate. Chris Dalton said Trump “rambled,” and said he was worried about Trump’s stance on Russia and his relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s judgment “is virtually non-existent,” said Victoria Walsh, a Clinton supporter.
In all, six of 16 members of the group that met Sunday night at The Star changed their thinking about the candidates.
Three moved closer to Trump. One moved from leaning Clinton to solid Clinton, one moved from undecided to Clinton and another moved from Johnson to undecided.
One participant said Trump won the debate. At least 10 people declared Clinton the winner.
Tim Davis, 34, a construction worker from Gladstone, said he fears what Clinton would do to the Supreme Court. “To me, that says more about this country’s future than the presidency does,” he said.
Clinton’s late-debate call for gun ownership restrictions disqualified her from consideration, Davis said. “One moment she’s all for banning personal ownership of guns; tonight, she’s ‘oh, I respect the Second Amendment.’” he said.
Melinda McMahon, a 31-year old UMKC law student, said Trump concerns her. “I have so many moral qualms with Donald Trump as a person,” she said, although “I do believe he understands the tax code better than any candidate.”
McMahon, who supported Mitt Romney four years ago and GOP Gov. John Kasich this spring, remains undecided in the race.
And unlike most other participants, McMahon thought Bill Clinton’s past behavior was fair game for Trump.
“You look at Nancy Reagan, you look at Michelle Obama, you see that they’ve been put under this microscope,” she said. “It’s only fair that he’s put under the same microscope. …Anything criminal, or his history, should be held to that standard.”
Focus group participants expressed little concern with Clinton’s email disclosures, or recent reports about private speeches to Wall Street groups.
And most firmly rejected Trump’s statement that Clinton would be “in jail” were he the president. “That’s Third World,” said Deb Twyman, a Clinton supporter. “We don’t do that in this country.”
Twyman, who once supported Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, called Trump “creepy” for his walks around the stage, sometimes behind his Democratic opponent.
Several participants said they once supported Sanders. All rejected Trump’s entreaties to transfer their support from Sanders to him.
Kansas Citian Shacyra Johnson, 21, went from undecided to leaning toward voting for Clinton. She didn’t appreciate Trump’s comments about Muslims, and while she’s still not enthusiastic about Clinton, “at least she knows what she’s doing.”
Trump’s ability to solidify his support in Missouri is critical, if not for his own prospects then for other Republicans.
Most politicians in the state believe Trump enjoys a small lead a month before the election, and will likely claim the state’s 10 electoral votes. But they say the weekend’s events could erode Republican enthusiasm in the state, threatening down-ballot candidates such as Sen. Roy Blunt, who is locked in a tight race with Secretary of State Jason Kander.
In an interview, Blunt said he had watched only a part of the debate and did not comment on the exchange.
Meeting with reporters in Kansas City Monday, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said Clinton wanted to “stay above the fray” in the 90-minute debate.
“She did not let him draw her into his web of falsehoods and twisted positions,” she said.