Justine Miller Charlotte Observer.
Kae Roberts and Jay Eardly were leaning toward Hillary Clinton before Monday night’s debate.
By the end, they had both pulled away.
John Kokos and Hank Federal were undecided going in, potential Clinton backers.
By the end, they’d ruled her out.
Indeed, while polls said that Clinton won the first general election debate with Donald Trump Monday, she may not have won actual votes. And she may even have lost some, at least in the battleground state of North Carolina.
In a focus group of 21 voters from around Charlotte conducted by McClatchy and the Charlotte Observer, four who were up for grabs before the debate moved away from her by the end.
The racially diverse group included seven Republicans, six Democrats, seven unaffiliated voters and one Libertarian. Their votes are crucial in one of the nation’s key swing states, one in which Trump and Clinton are neck-and-neck in the most recent polls. They live in or around a city rocked in recent days by turmoil over last week’s police shooting of an African-American man.
That the state is pivotal is clear. Clinton will campaign in Raleigh on Tuesday. Trump had planned to make a post-debate trip to Charlotte Tuesday but agreed to reschedule in the wake of the shooting and violence that taxed local authorities. He’s expected in the state soon.
For the four who emerged less impressed by Clinton, it was the seeming familiarity of her proposals for the economy and national security that was a turnoff.
Roberts, who is unaffiliated with a party, wrote in her notes several times during the debate that Clinton offered “pie in the sky” ideas. By debate’s end, she had moved from leaning toward Clinton to undecided.
“The things she says she’s going to do, there’s no substance behind it,” Roberts said.
One potential winner in the focus group was Johnson, who benefited largely because so many voters were annoyed at both Trump and Clinton.
“I was looking for Hillary to convince me, but I’m not getting the Hillary I’m looking for,” particularly on taxes, said Eardly, an unaffiliated voter. By the end of the debate, he’d moved from Clinton to considering Johnson.
Kokos, who works in Hickory, said before the debate he was undecided. Afterwards, he ruled out Clinton and appeared open to either Johnson and Trump. “The things she said were out of an old playbook,” he said of Clinton.
Before the debate, the tally was nine Clinton, three Trump, six undecided and three Johnson. Afterward, it became seven Clinton, three Trump, six undecided and five Johnson.
Johnson, said supporters, was an agent of change, but didn’t have Trump’s bombast. While they didn’t have many specific reasons for moving his way, they are intrigued.
“I wish he’d been at the debate,” said Federal, a Republican who was undecided before the debate.
Many thought Clinton did better on style and debating points, but she didn’t move them. “Hillary was much cleaner in her evasions,” said Federal, who called Trump “bombastic.”
Clinton did get accolades from the four African-American voters in the group. They recoiled at Trump’s notion that their communities are awful places. They praised Clinton for her backing for community policing and promoting dialogue between police and community leaders.
“She has the things we need to change,” said Rev. Ray Shawn McKinnon, who had been a supporter of Clinton Democratic rival Bernie Sanders but is not squarely for her.
Clinton’s challenge among black voters is not necessarily to win more support — polls show her with a huge lead over Trump — but to get them to turn out.
Aisha Dew, who had chaired Sanders’ North Carolina campaign, came away pleased at what she heard Monday. “Sanders was stronger on social justice,” she said, but Clinton convinced her she could be equally strong.
“She checked off a lot of the boxes Bernie had,” added Hiwot Hailu, a Queens University student who had been leaning toward Clinton but found the debate helped solidify her support.
Trump had only three supporters before the debate, but held on to them.
“I agree we’re in a bubble,” said Claire Mahoney, who had supported Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the Republican primary over Trump.
She’s now all for Trump, particularly as he argued the nation’s economy is being artificially propped up by historically low interest rates and that the Federal Reserve Board bows to political pressure. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenour, another Rubio backer, saw Trump’s idea of lowering taxes as an important job creator.
But Trump couldn’t capitalize on the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton. The debate, said James Brown, an unaffiliated voter, “was like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. I got absolutely nothing out of this.” He’s considering Johnson.
“Clinton was more of the same, but Trump presented himself as very rough, unpolished,” said John Fitzgerald, an unaffiliated voter.
Asked whether they could see either Clinton or Trump as president, eight said neither of them qualified.
Yet, most said they would tune in to the next round of debates, including the vice presidential candidates Oct. 4 and Trump and Clinton again Oct. 9 and 19. But before they finally make up their minds, they want specifics and civility.
“I’d like to see each candidate talk about the other side’s issues,” said Marcus Ramos-Pearson, who’s leaning Clinton. “I want to see Donald Trump talk more about social justice.”