Lord Ashcroft: Exclusive – My next book will be on Carrie Johnson

29 Jul

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

As I prepare to publish my biography of Sir Keir Starmer on August 19, I am pleased to announce that my next project will be a book about Carrie Johnson.

Carrie has interested me for some time. Many people know her as Boris Johnson’s wife, but her influence developed long before she moved into 10 Downing Street via her work over the last decade within the Conservative Party and also through the posts she has held working for government ministers. Aside from politics, she has campaigned in the fields of the environment and animal rights, both of which are areas of great interest to me.

As with all of my political biographies, this project will be independent, objective, open-minded, fair, factual and even-handed. The research I’ve done already has proved fascinating.

As well as my forthcoming book on Starmer, titled Red Knight, I have published biographies of David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rishi Sunak in recent years. I anticipate Carrie Johnson being every bit as intriguing and rewarding a subject. I expect this book to be published early in 2022.

Lord Ashcroft: Let’s rejoice at the news that the NHS has been awarded the George Cross

5 Jul

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. He has written six books on bravery including George Cross Heroes.

I am thrilled and heartened by today’s announcement that the NHS has been awarded the George Cross (GC).

It is only the third time in the decoration’s 81-year-history that a collective GC has been awarded by the reigning monarch – and its recipient on this occasion could hardly be more deserving.

Yet again, the Queen has judged the mood of the nation perfectly and decided that this is the appropriate way to reward the devotion to duty, self-sacrifice and courage of our NHS staff.

The awards marks the 73rd birthday of the NHS, but it has clearly been prompted by the response of NHS staff to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In her hand-written personal message to accompany the news, the Queen concluded: “This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations. Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service. You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation. Elizabeth R”

The timing of the announcement is shrewd. For the past year and more, the priority for our NHS workers during the coronavirus emergency has been to save lives. And the priority for the Government has been to give frontline staff the protection, the equipment and the support they needed to do their jobs.

Now, as we prepare to have the majority of Covid-19 restrictions lifted and with the health crisis much more under control, it is time to show our appreciation to those men and women who risked, and in some cases gave, their lives to treat Covid-19 sufferers.

The GC is usually awarded to men and women for individual bravery. However, I called publicly – on ConservativeHome – for the collective award of the GC to the NHS fully 15 months ago – within a month of the nation going into its first lockdown [see below].

 

The Sun and other newspapers quickly responded to my call in a positive way. It was in April last year that I also wrote an open letter to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister – as he himself recovered from Covid-19 which so nearly claimed his own life. He had rightly described the NHS as “ the country’s greatest asset”, “the beating heart of this country” and “powered by love”. I, in turn, asked for this service to be publicly recognized.

I have written six books on bravery, including George Cross Heroes, and back in April last year I came to the conclusion that it would be appropriate for The Queen to bestow a collective award of the George Cross (GC) on the NHS.

Like any controversial proposal, my suggestion received a mixed response. A former Labour town councillor, who made it clear he does not share my political views, emailed to say this was a “fantastic idea’’. Another commentator said I was a “genius” for making the proposal. Critics were equally vociferous: my proposal was sneered at by some who said all that NHS staff wanted was a pay increase and protective masks – and that medals were “worthless”.

The GC is the UK and the Commonwealth’s first-equal ranking decoration for bravery along with the Victoria Cross (VC) and it was instituted by the Queen’s father, George VI, in 1940, early in the Second World War.

It was created in order to acknowledge supreme bravery that – unlike the VC – did not actually take place in the heat of battle. The decoration was instead awarded for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of great danger”.

Initially, during the Blitz, it was awarded primarily to our bomb disposal men, both civilian and military, but since then it has been awarded for a variety of reasons. However, it is always to recognise not just service but real courage.

The first collective award of the GC was made in April 1942 to the island of Malta. George VI said it was for “a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”: during the previous two years Malta had become the most heavily bombed location on earth and its inhabitants suffered dreadful hardships during the Second World War.

The second, and until now final, collective award of the GC was made to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in November 1999 for the bravery of its members during the Troubles. The Force had suffered terribly in protecting both sides of the community from danger for 30 years – 302 officers had been killed and thousands more had been injured.

Today’s announcement fills me with joy. In my view our NHS workers deserve not just the award of the GC – but also to be collectively championed as “the bravest of the brave”.

For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Lord Ashcroft: My campaign against captive lion breeding in South Africa scores a success. Its government agrees to a ban.

2 May

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

I am delighted to inform those who have followed my campaign to end the captive lion breeding industry in South Africa that its government has today agreed to abolish it. This move is long overdue, but it is a triumph.

For years, I and others – notably Ian Michler and his Blood Lions team – have argued that this barbaric industry must stop. At last, those in power have paid attention.

Credit must go to the Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy, who announced the measure today at the release of the High Level Panel report on the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros. She appears to have been prepared to take action in a way that her predecessors would not or could not.

In June 2020, I wrote to Ms Creecy and sent her a copy of my book about lion farming, Unfair Game, in which I was able to expose some of its practitioners via my undercover investigations.

In my letter, I wrote:

“I have always loved South Africa. I have been fortunate to visit the country many times. I admire its people and am in awe of its environment and wildlife. I had always believed that as a nation it was doing its best to look after its animals but in 2018 I was so disturbed to learn about its lion farming industry that I decided to examine it independently. My findings have, sadly, confirmed that something has gone very badly wrong in your country.

After many months of inquiry, I have concluded that lions are being exploited in South Africa on an industrial scale. The level of wanton cruelty inflicted on the animals, and the lion trade’s links to criminality and corruption, have shocked me profoundly. What is particularly alarming is that South Africa’s authorities appear so relaxed about this state of affairs. Indeed, in many ways, they seem happy to enable the lion trade to exist.

The captive lion industry, which I believe has grown to be about 12,000 strong, has no conservation value. Worse, there is clear evidence that its existence now encroaches on Africa’s wild lion population as a result of poaching in order to widen the captive-born gene pool. As far as I can tell, the lion trade brings no tangible benefit to the South African economy either because it is principally a covert, cash-based business overseen by a comparatively small number of businessmen. Furthermore, its association with Asia’s bone trade is a major cause for concern on public health grounds, among other things.

This book will force many people to question South Africa’s commitment to its environment and its ecology. It may also raise doubts about the kind of country South Africa is becoming as the 21st century progresses. I make no apology for this. It is right that a bright light should shine on uncomfortable truths so that something can be done to turn the tide. There is widespread interest in this issue and I predict it will only grow.

Putting every argument to one side, I believe that the truth about this matter is, in the final analysis, simple. Those who object to South Africa’s lion industry do so on moral, ethical and welfare grounds. Those who argue in favour of having a lion industry in South Africa do so exclusively for financial reasons. On which side of the argument do you sit?

I also gave evidence to the High Level Panel last year and sent a copy of my book to every one of its members. Friends in South Africa tell me that my book was important in forcing those examining this issue to acknowledge that what has been happening to lions in South Africa is a travesty which besmirches the country’s reputation around the globe.”

Today, Creecy made a speech in Pretoria as the report was released. The key passage in relation to captive-bred lions is as follows:

“The Panel identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade. The panel recommends that South Africa does not captive -breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. I have requested the department to action this accordingly and ensure that the necessary consultation in implementation is conducted.”

Lion farming in South Africa is a scandal. Behind the veneer of the respectable tourist industry, thousands of big cats are beaten, drugged, starved, shot and skinned every year for nothing more than profit. The serial exploitation of these creatures from birth to death and beyond is truly awful. So is the lion trade’s links to international crime syndicates who sell the bones of big cats in Asia. Just imagine: there are about 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa at any one time, against a wild lion population of only 3,000. Such abhorrent statistics have left the authorities with few options other than to act.

There is still a long way to go. I have no doubt that further battles lie ahead, and I will continue to do my bit to fight those battles. But today’s news is an important step in the right direction.

Next, parliament must agree to pass the necessary legislation to outlaw this barbaric trade, and the police must then enforce that new law. It is heartening to think that in future, lions in South Africa will not be bred for the bullet.

Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Lord Ashcroft: A woke country with a barbaric practice. Why Norway should halt its bloody slaughter of hundreds of whales.

1 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.  For his work on wildlife, visit www.lordashcroftwildlife.com.

Today marks the start of the whaling season in Norway, one of the world’s richest countries and often championed for its political correctness.

And yet again this oil and gas rich nation will ignore its growing number of critics worldwide to hunt and kill hundreds of minke whales off its picturesque coastline.

But does ‘woke’ Norway really need to continue this slaughter in the twenty-first century? I truly believe that it is time for this barbaric practice to stop once and for all.

In recent weeks, Norway’s fleet of whalers, many based in the Lofoten Islands in the north of the country, have been preparing for the new season, including loading their deadly exploding harpoons on board, along with their wooden meat-cooling pallets used to store their catch.

Today, some of these ships are already at sea , where they will again defy a moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986 and aimed at protecting dwindling stocks of the mammal.

Norway, an IWC member, resumed whaling in 1993 – under an “objection” to the 1986 moratorium – initially insisting, somewhat dishonestly, that it was for scientific reasons, but later admitting its motives were commercial. Now, every year, Norway announces a self-imposed quota, which for 2021 will be nearly 1,300 minke whales.

Alarmingly, despite a decline in the demand for whale meat from Norwegians, its Government is determined that the practice of whale hunting should not only continue but be expanded. Schools have even been encouraged to offer “whale burgers” on their menus.

Most people living in Britain believe that Japan kills more whales that any other nation. Yet the reality in recent years is that Norway has often killed more whales than Japan and Iceland combined.

The method of hunting used is to shoot the whales with powerful harpoons that explode when they are less than a metre into the whale’s body. The huge mammals are then hauled on to the whaling ship using a wire attached to the harpoon. The whales are usually still alive when they are winched back on to the whaling ship, often put out of their misery by a rifle bullet to the head.

Defenders of the practice point out that commercial whaling is around a thousand years old. They say Norway, long a seafaring nation due to its long, narrow coastline, is entitled to hunt minke whales, which are not an endangered species.

Opponents of whaling, including World Animal Protection (previously the World Society for the Protection of Animals), have obtained footage that showed a minke whale being harpooned and “winged” off northern Norway – and then apparently taking several hours to die

Conservationists say that minke whale numbers off Norway are declining significantly – to below 100,000 – and that some of the country’s whale meat has dangerously high levels of mercury.

I believe that a nation as prosperous as Norway can and should stop commercial whaling, and thereby end the apparent pain and trauma that the mammals suffer when they are harpooned.

It is expected that ten whaling ships, based at four different ports, will hunt minke whales this year. Each minke whale is up to ten metres in length and can weigh up to nine tonnes. Each whale caught is typically worth around £7,000 to the hunter.

I have been fortunate over the decades, as I have travelled the world visiting some 150 countries, to see hundreds of whales in their natural environment. Is there a more magnificent and powerful sight in nature than an adult whale breaching?

Whales are intelligent, warm-blooded, majestic creatures that give birth to live young, and each whale plays a key role within its family structure and its pod. Instinctively loyal to other whales, they deserve our protection.

I certainly think it is impossible for a country as wealthy as Norway to justify the mass slaughter of hundreds of minke whales every year. And I don’t buy into their “it’s part of our tradition” argument.

Slavery used to be part of the British ‘tradition’ until we realised that it was wrong on every level. So Britain abolished slavery in 1833, thereby freeing some 800,000 Africans from servitude.

Tradition, in terms of passing on good customs from one generation to another, should be applauded. Tradition, if used as an excuse for perpetuating wrong-doing, should be deplored.

In Norwegian schools, it is time to halt the supply of whale burgers and replace it with lessons in the value of conserving minke whales.

Norwegians, young and old alike, should accept that commercial whaling is cruel, out-dated and unnecessary – and must be stopped.

Lord Ashcroft: For many voters, America’s election was not about Biden – but a referendum on Trump

20 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Joe Biden’s inauguration today will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by millions in America and around the world. The moment crowns the victory not just of Biden, but of the institutions of American democracy that many still fear are under threat. After a fortnight of extraordinary drama that saw the storming of the Capitol building and a second impeachment for an outgoing president, it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – the movements that brought American politics to where it is, and their effect in the election that feels as though it took place not just eleven short weeks ago but in another age.

If the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House will stand as one of the defining political events of our time, its successor last year was in many ways at least as remarkable: the supposedly unpopular president winning more votes than any previous Republican, losing only to the candidate with the most votes ever. This week I am publishing my analysis, based on four years of research throughout the US as well extensive polling and focus groups during the 2020 campaign. The research both helps to explain what happened and why, and gives some clues about what we can expect in the next chapter of American politics. Here are some of the key points.

What is President Biden’s mandate?

With a record-breaking haul of 81 million votes, Biden is the most successful presidential candidate in American history. But for many voters, the election was not about Biden but a referendum on Trump. I found 99 per cent of Trump supporters saying they approved of the job he had done, and nine in 10 said they would be voting for the incumbent; 94 per cent of Biden supporters disapproved of Trump’s performance and a quarter said they were voting mainly to get rid of him.

Those switching from Trump to Biden were most likely to mention disillusionment with Trump among their reasons; having high expectations of Biden or liking Democrat policies were at the very bottom of the list.

While policy concerns were different for Trumpers (the economy, immigration) and Biden backers (Covid, healthcare), another telling difference was the kind of leader they wanted. While three quarters of Trump enthusiasts would rather have a president “who does the right thing even if it is divisive,” a majority of Biden supporters would prefer one “who will create a more civil political climate and build consensus even if I don’t agree with everything they do.”

In other words, for many voters Biden had one job – to see off Trump – and he will accomplish his task today. The new president’s problems will begin with whatever he decides to do next. As with any successful political movement, especially one of this size, the coalition that elected Biden in 2020 is far from being a monolithic bloc. Its foundation is the Democratic base, many of whose members yearned for a more liberal, progressive direction and found the compromise of nominating an established moderate quite agonising. Many of them hoped that Biden’s victory would, in fact, usher in a much more radical Democratic era than might have been suggested by the new president’s record in Washington or his reassuringly temperate campaign style. These were joined by a group of new voters, younger and more ethnically diverse, who were opposed to Trump and all his works and were particularly driven to address racial injustice.

Then there is a much more moderate set of voters who wish above all for a calmer, less acrimonious form of politics. Less inclined to dismiss the Trump years out of hand, they were more likely than most to prefer a president who creates a more civil political climate. If they had doubts about Biden it was over his age and health, and the prospect that he might quickly be succeeded by a new face with a more radical agenda. What they wanted was not a Green New Deal but a bit of peace and quiet. Yet with Vice President Harris having the casting vote in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration has little excuse not to be bold. The potential for conflict and disappointment among his supporters is already apparent.

Trumpism without Trump?

Some see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trump and it’s presidency. Arguably, it’s a funny sort of repudiation that sees a president win 11 million more votes, and a higher vote share, than he did four years earlier. For many, the temptation to dismiss Trump supporters as the “basket of deplorables” and lump them all in with the Capitol-storming extremists will be greater than ever. But this would be an injustice and a mistake. As his reputation implodes, it is as important as ever to grasp what it was about the Trump offering that nearly half the electorate found so compelling.

Looking back at what he did and what his supporters told us during four years of research, I think this can be distilled into what we might call the Seven Tenets of Trumpism. An enduring belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that the US is different from, and in important ways, greater than, other countries; conviction that constitutional freedoms like free speech and the right to own guns are important and need defending; the belief that it is possible for anyone who works hard to be successful in America, whatever their background; rejection of political correctness and identity politics; belief in business, low taxes and deregulation; support for a forceful, independent foreign policy; and – crucially – willingness to tolerate a good deal of friction in politics in the cause of advancing these things.

The question for the Republican Party is whether this powerful proposition can be disentangled from the 45th president himself. Could you have Trumpism without Trump? In my research, one in three Trump supporters told us they approved of what he had done as president but disapproved of his character and personal conduct. This meant two thirds of his supporters said they approved of both his actions and the way he behaved. That’s not to say most will not have been horrified as they saw the seat of their democracy under attack. But for most of his presidency, what others saw as his outrageous behaviour was not just part of the package, but part of the appeal – a feature, not a bug. Many loved having a president who said exactly what they thought, refused to conform to politically correct orthodoxies and remained a political outsider.

Some would like the Republicans to put the whole Trump era behind it, but it won’t be that simple. The two parties in American politics have always drawn the base of their support from very different constituencies, but over the last forty years that fault-line has shifted completely.

On this map, the vertical axis represents security, in terms of things like health, income and occupation – the higher up, the more secure. The horizontal axis represents diversity, which includes factors like ethnicity and population density – the further to the left, the more diverse. Over the last 40 years, the Democratic party’s base of support has in economic terms grown steadily more upscale, while the Republicans have become the party of rural and small-town America. The coalition that sent Trump to the White House is different from the one that elected George W. Bush, let alone his father. In charting its new course, the Republican Party cannot simply trade this coalition in for a new one.

The task the Republicans now have is to hold together that base of support, and even expand back into the suburbs and cities themselves. To say that President Trump’s performance since the election has made this task harder would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Those who want it to remain “Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (as Don Junior had it at the fateful rally) might try the patience of mainstream Republicans beyond endurance: being uncouth on Twitter is one thing, inciting insurrection is altogether another. But those who want a Trump-free future for the GOP must find a way of distancing themselves from him while holding onto the millions – minus the extremist minority – that he brought into the Republican fold. This leads to another question – for another day – of whether the GOP will even continue to exist in its current form.

Can Biden reunite America?

For four years, Trump has been the focal point for divisions in American politics. But if he exacerbated those divisions, he did not create them. As we can see from this dashboard of our polling during the campaign, there are deep and genuine differences in outlook, priorities and values: the issues they care about, whether they believe minorities enjoy equal rights and opportunities, the role of the government, how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the things they worry about on a daily basis.

Combining these various views and attributes on one map makes for an interesting picture of the electorate. We see here how different issues, attributes, personalities and opinions interact with one another. The closer the plot points are to each other the more closely related they are.

We can see how issue concerns, political outlook, news sources, views of American life and Trump’s presidency were associated with support with one or another candidate at the 2020 election.

Such a divergence of views and priorities is the stuff of politics, and an equivalent map could be drawn of the electorate in any democracy. The divisions are made more acute, however, by the way each side views the motivations of the other.

Two thirds of Republicans said they thought people who vote Democrat and support Biden were “good people who want good things for America, we just disagree about how to achieve them.” However, only just over half of Democrats were prepared to say the same about Republicans and Trump voters: 42 per cent said these were “bad people who want the wrong things for America,” including majorities of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and those who describe themselves as very liberal, and two thirds of self-declared socialists.

Nine out of ten Biden enthusiasts said either that they thought Trump was the biggest cause of recent divisions in society or that he had made existing divisions worse. Most Trump supporters, meanwhile, thought America would be just as divided even if he had never run for president.

Accordingly, the two camps took different views when asked about politics in the post-Trump era. Only a small minority of voters thought things would go back to normal quite quickly when Trump left office. But while a majority of Biden enthusiasts and almost half of Biden-Trump switchers thought things would gradually return to normal, six in ten Trump enthusiasts thought politics would either remain just as divisive or become even more so after Trump’s departure.

While Biden supporters often said they wanted more unity and less division, this often seemed less evident in the way they spoke about the people who voted for Trump. “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country,” said one Democrat reflecting on the 2016 result. “Idiots and frickin’ old, racist white men.” The idea that his voters had simply lacked guidance by better informed people such as themselves was also a regular theme: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating the people in our lives?” agonised one woman. “Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

Trump voters, meanwhile, felt strongly that the calls for agreement and consensus were only really aimed in one direction. “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.” The supposedly tolerant left “is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump, then you’re the enemy.” As for the idea of Biden ending the divisions, “It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the President, I’m not sure he himself could do it.”

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Reunited Nation? American Politics Beyond The 2020 Election is published this week by Biteback.

Lord Ashcroft: “If Trump loses…he can run again.” My American election focus groups in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

30 Oct

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

The final week of our virtual pre-election focus group tour of America’s swing states takes us to Pennsylvania, which swung narrowly to Donald Trump four years ago, having backed Democrats for president in every election since 1988, and Arizona, which has voted for the Republican in all but one election since 1948, but is now high on Joe Biden’s list of targets.

With only days to go, we found some 2016 Trump supporters torn over how to cast their vote:

“I was a little concerned that Biden’s not sure what he’s going to do with fossil fuel. And I’m concerned on Trump’s side with the healthcare system, but I like the economics, but maybe Biden has a better plan for disability people like me. So right now I’m stuck.”

“Trump has no response plan for the virus, nothing’s going on. But I don’t think Biden really has a plan for this either.”

“In 2016 I was willing to give him a chance because of what he could do for the economy and the fact that this was something different, he wasn’t just another politician. It’s not so easy now.”

“Trump lies a lot and Biden’s kind of not all there.”

One frequent complaint was familiar from the last election four years ago.

“I can’t believe in a country of 340 million people we can’t get better candidates. At the start of the election it seemed like this was the year it wasn’t going to be between two old white guys. And here we are at the election and we’re voting for one of two old white guys.”

The story about Hunter Biden’s allegedly incriminating emails continued to register with voters (though not all: “I’ve seen a picture of him with a meth pipe in his mouth, but that’s about it”).

Those leaning towards Biden were not swayed:

“I think it’s made up. I don’t see how people can be so worried about Biden’s son when Trump’s kids are full of nepotism.

Others were more inclined to believe the story was true and important but doubted it would make much difference at this stage in the campaign.

“I think it’s a big deal, but the snowball is rolling a bit too fast to stop it now. About 50 million people have already voted.”

“I grew up respecting people like Reagan. Now it’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show.”

For 2016 voters who had drifted away from the president, two themes recurred. One was the manner in which he had gone about the job.

“I love that it’s America first, that we are starting to become energy independent, that he’s making our country strong again. But he’s making us look weak by not handling this pandemic right, by acting like a child in these debates.”

“I was very embarrassed about the debates, especially the first one. I grew up respecting people like Reagan, and my family listened when it was the debates or the state of the union or something the president said. Now it’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show.”

“We voted for change. We thought he was going to come in and buck the political system and not play this left versus right game that we’re seeing now.”

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. We knew we weren’t getting a professional with him, but he’s taken unprofessionalism to an entirely new level.”

“He thought he knew better than people who spent their entire lives studying this stuff. And he was wrong about that.”

Some of these likely defectors would have been more willing to overlook these failings, as they did in 2016, had it not been for Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

“The first three years, I could easily say the good outweighed the bad because the economy was getting better. It’s the lack of response to this pandemic. It’s him contracting the virus himself and still downplaying it.”

“The things he was doing for trade and unemployment were really good. He didn’t do so well on the pandemic and listening to experts. He thought he knew better than people who spent their entire lives studying this stuff. And he was wrong about that.”

“He dropped the ball big time, not only playing it down, but making fun and making racial jokes about where it came from. If you lost someone during the pandemic it just show remorse. It’s not appropriate when you’re the leader of the country.”

Some thought Trump’s experience of Covid was not what it seemed:

“I don’t even think he had it.” Why would he fake it? “Attention! Maybe he was like, ‘I’ll just fake it and pretend I got over it in a day or two and look, it’s not that bad.”

“At the debate, he just faded out at the end like he wanted to go to bed.”

Not that anyone was particularly enthused by the idea of President Joe Biden, including those who were intending to vote for him. As we have seen throughout the campaign, many worried that he might not be up to the job, physically and mentally:

“I’ve dealt with a lot of dementia in my family, and you see Biden is getting older, just starting to mentally lose it. How’s he going to be in two years, three years, four years?”

“He was saying he wants his vice president to be willing to be president. It’s alarming that he’s basically conceding that if he wins, he’s not going to be in office for long enough to do anything.”

Some thought this had been in evidence at the final TV debate of the campaign:

“If there’s no teleprompter, that poor guy can’t finish that thought.”

“At the debate, he just faded out at the end like he wanted to go to bed.”

“Pelosi has already reminded us of the Twenty Fifth Amendment so she can remove his ass and Kamala will be president.”

There were also continuing concerns that Biden would be a vehicle for much more radical left-wing elements within the Democratic party:

“I think Joe wants to be a moderate. But he has to agree with people who are so far left that he says one thing and really means another. That’s what keeps me back from choosing him.”

“In the primaries, the people he was saying ‘their ideas are crazy’ he’s now saying ‘oh yeah, I’ll do that’.

“He’s the path of least resistance for the far left. He’ll do what they say. Pelosi has already reminded us of the Twenty Fifth Amendment so she can remove his ass and Kamala will be president.”

For some, the Democrat nominee simply met what they regarded as the minimum level of decency and dignity necessary in a president, unlike the incumbent:

“Biden is offering some respect and some dignity to the office, and an office that we can say we want our kids to be president, and Donald Trump is not.”

“I don’t like having a racist in office. It doesn’t matter how many good things you’ve done. If you can’t denounce white supremacy and groups like that, I can’t vote for you.”

“We’re going to have the same problems, but maybe we’ll handle them a little different. Once he mocked that reporter, it doesn’t matter what you do after that. He did the military, he did the Muslims, I’m a Mexican and he said we were rapists and criminals.”

“Over the last four years I’ve come to love him.”

A few previous Trump supporters had fewer qualms about voting for him now than they did in 2016.

“It’s a slam dunk. I didn’t know a lot about him then, but over the last four years I’ve come to love him.”

Most traditional Republican voters we spoke to were sticking with him for policy reasons:

“He’s trying to make it easier for business to accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

“One of the coolest things is he wants to do school vouchers, so instead of being assigned to a certain public school you get to choose.”

“Closing the southern border was huge. We were being overrun, literally. There were caravans.”

“His reduction in taxes, restructuring trade deals.”

“Look at the peace deals he’s brokered in the Middle East, Israel being recognised. Which gets zero press, by the way, zero.”

“At previous elections I’ve felt that if my guy doesn’t win, things are still going to be OK. This isn’t one of those elections.”

Fear of a radical change of direction under a Democrat administration also played an important part:

“We’re going to save the world and give everybody free education and free healthcare and equal income. It’s just irrational.”

“The anarchy that went on for 100 days on the streets of many cities, the blatant support for organisations that want to basically pillage and burn if they don’t get their way. That’s probably the biggest influencer for me.”

“I watched the entire Democratic convention and they didn’t denounce the violence once, not one single time.”

“It could be our way of life that’s at stake. It’s not just a few Democratic ideas, it’s upheaval of the whole system. The Green New Deal, he wants to get rid of oil. It doesn’t make sense, its just something that sounds good when a bunch of Berkeley students are arguing.”

“You’re either supporting the police or you’re supporting Black Lives Matter.”

“At previous elections I’ve felt that if my guy doesn’t win, things are still going to be OK. This isn’t one of those elections. I feel like there’s significant change ahead of us if Biden gets in.”

“It’s kind of mind-blowing, that population out there that supports craziness.”

In Pennsylvania, African American voters who had not turned out in 2016 usually said they did not think Hillary Clinton had deserved their vote, or that they had simply not expected her to need it:

“If Bernie had been on the ballot I would have voted for Bernie, but I didn’t vote for Hillary because I didn’t think she was good enough. If I’d known the margin of victory in this state was so small, I definitely would have stopped being so stubborn and just stood in line and voted. Hindsight is 20/20.”

“I thought she had it in the bank. I didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance in hell. Big mistake. Definitely won’t happen this time around.”

“I guess I overestimated the citizens of the United States of America. I didn’t think with his lack of experience and the fact that he was grossly underqualified and, quite frankly, a criminal, that there was enough of the population that would actually elect him to office.”

“He says what he’s going to do, and all that craziness that he’s doing, he said he was going to do it. And the scary thing is there were enough people who were just as crazy that voted for him. It’s kind of mind-blowing, that population out there that supports craziness.”

This was not to say the Democrats had necessarily learned their lessons from four years ago:

“I don’t think they learned much of anything. The only thing they learned is to offer the bare minimum and say ‘we’re better than Trump’, which is obvious, but at the same time, there’s no real solution in place. Once they get to power, they’re going to follow their own agenda. How much of that agenda is really going to be about the people and how much is going to be about their self-centred leaders?”

“She’s a token, in my opinion.”

Nor were they particularly enamoured of Kamala Harris:

“I don’t think she’s black. She’s like a token, in my opinion;” “She’s half Indian. Indian-Jamaican.”

“He figured if he can get a black woman behind him, that will bring in the black vote and we’ll also bring in a lot of women.”

“She didn’t do anything in California to get black men out of jail.”

At the same time, efforts by the Trump administration to reform the criminal justice system and reduce sentences for drug offences were given short shrift:

“It’s overpopulation. That’s the real reason. It’s not because he wants to, it’s because the prisons are overcrowded and a lot of that is because of drug charges.”

“What I’d like to see with the justice system is to treat minorities fairly, and that’s the problem. We’re not treated fairly.”

“Kanye and 50 Cent are just as crazy as he is.”

What did these voters make of recent polls that showing Trump could be on course to win a bigger share of the African American vote than he did four years ago?

“Maybe they’re African Americans with a lot of money, because Trump is about the upper crust and it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. So I could see African Americans that are well off supporting Trump.”

“They probably share his opinions that there should be an upper class and a lower class and they stay in their places.”

How about Kanye West’s Republican leanings and the rapper 50 Cent apparently endorsing Trump?

“They get the tax breaks. They only care about themselves and their pocketbooks.”

“They’re just as crazy as he is.”

Latino voters in Arizona who had also sat out 2016 were slightly more complimentary about the Democrats’ efforts to woo them:

“I think they’re not taking the Latino vote and the youth vote for granted like they have in the past.”

“I have heard commercials in Spanish that Biden approves and they let another person do the commercial in Spanish. Not like ‘oh, I’m trying my Spanish just for you.’ I like that because it’s not faking it. I like that they’re actually reaching out in our language.”

“All of this inclusiveness and unity. What they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.”

Asked what Biden would do as president, many of his likely voters said things like “unite us”, “bring us closer together” or “bring peace and unity”.

Others on both sides doubted it would be as straightforward as that:

“It doesn’t matter who the president is, you can’t tell everyone to get along or make a law that says everybody gets along. You have to model good behaviour and hope for the best.”

“I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me. We can change the laws, we can change who can go to the bathroom in what room and who can play what sport, but my opinion is not worth anything.”

“The tolerant left is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump then you’re an enemy.”

“I hope it’s rainbows and birds and everything, but Biden is not going to cure racism. We already know we’re surrounded by it. All these people voted for Trump, and we’re living among them.”

“My dad’s first language is Spanish and he’s voting for Trump, as he did last time. And I’m like, ‘he wouldn’t even let you in his house! He doesn’t want you!’ It’s delusional to think, we’re brown, we’re not racist. There’s a lot of racism, it’s not pretty. And Mexicans don’t like Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans don’t like Cubans, Cubans don’t like… And the more divided we are, the harder it is to fight back.”

“The silver lining is that if Trump loses, he can run again!”

As in previous weeks, voters on both sides expected a very tight race, with both Trump and Biden supporters often pessimistic about their candidate’s prospects. If it is Biden who is inaugurated on 20 January, what will Donald Trump do next?

“Who cares? He’ll start another business and run it into the ground and walk away scot free;”

“I thought he was already retired and doing nothing;”

“He’s going to go to prison;”

“He’ll try to make money off doing a TV show because he needs the limelight. He’ll need it more if he loses than he does now.”

For a few, hope sprang eternal:

“They keep saying he’s going to run again in 2024. I wouldn’t put it past him. The silver lining is that if he does lose this election, he can run again.”

Lord Ashcroft: “If you’re voting for Trump, you keep your mouth shut.” My American election focus groups in Georgia and Ohio.

23 Oct

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

This week, our virtual tour of America takes us to Georgia, widely seen as a toss-up this year, despite having voted for the Republican in every presidential election since 1992, and Ohio, the quintessential swing state which has backed the losing candidate only once since 1944.

As if often the case with political news, the Hunter Biden email scandal – the claim that Joe Biden’s son was involved in corruption involving a Ukrainian energy company – seemed to have gained a great deal of attention without moving any votes.

“The more they shut those stories down on social media, the more likely I am to believe that there’s truth to it.”

Some thought there might be something in the story, including some who were leaning towards Biden, but they were unfazed:

“There’s a little bit of influence-peddling going on, it would appear, but not much compared to his competitor.”

“Politics are just a little messy, you know. Everybody’s a little messy.”

For Republicans, the bigger issue was that Twitter and Facebook had taken steps to prevent the story being shared:

“It’s starting to feel like China. The more they shut those stories down on social media, the more likely I am to believe that there’s truth to it.”

The reluctance of mainstream media channels to cover the story also appeared to provide a classic example of their bias.

“If Donald Trump can be cross-examined about his taxes, about when he take his coffee, then Joe Biden can be asked about what is going on with Hunter and whether or not the family’s getting kickbacks from foreign countries.”

“If this story were about Trump it would be absolutely non-stop. You couldn’t get away from it, it would be everywhere;” “The media is stirring the pot in one direction only.”

“If this story were about Trump it would be absolutely non-stop.”

By the same token, Trump’s tax returns, revealed four weeks ago to considerable fanfare by the New York Times, were also fading from memory, having moved few if any voters.

The story that he had paid only $750 in federal income tax in 2016, and nothing at all in 10 of the previous 15 years came as no surprise to his opponents, who either believed either that he had fiddled the figures or that he was a less successful entrepreneur than he claimed.

His supporters either cheered him on or didn’t care.

“Part of the reason I’m a Republican is because we pay too much in taxes, and because there are so many loopholes. I want simpler taxes. So if Donald Trump is using loopholes, that is Exhibit A as to why we need to overhaul our tax situation, and the Democrats are not going to do it.”

“He doesn’t take a salary. Let’s just move on to issues that actually matter.”

Republican-inclined voters we spoke to in the suburbs of Cleveland and Atlanta – often described as being queasy about Trump’s presidency – were largely resolute in their support, however disagreeable some of them found him:

“He’s like a great surgeon who is very arrogant and has a terrible bedside manner, but he’s the one you want to do your surgery.”

“I’m trying in this election to think long term instead of short term. I definitely do not enjoy Trump’s personality, but I definitely align with more of his policies, with the worldview that I carry.”

“People are imperfect. I don’t think Trump is the answer to all our problems. I just think he’s the unlikely messenger for us right now.”

As in previous weeks, we heard that the direction of policy outweighed Trump’s personal shortcomings:

“One of the high points was the reform of the justice system to end mass incarceration, the First Step Act. I’ve never heard anyone give him props for that. Anyone who thinks Trump hates anyone who it not a white American male is clearly not thinking about this.”

“There was a peace treaty in the Middle East, but none of that gets reported in the news because they look for the negative to talk about.”

“The economy has been gangbusters. In January and February I was doing overtime like crazy.”

“They would take him to a doctor and say ‘he’s deemed incompetent. Here’s our new president’.”

This was especially true in comparison to what they feared from a Biden (or Harris) administration.

“I am petrified of socialised medicine. I’ve worked with Canadians and even though they had government healthcare, they also paid for private healthcare because socialised healthcare sucked.”

“The Democrats are on the side of ‘you want to be this way, no problem. You want to be that way, no problem. Your seven-year-old feels they are meant to be green, go dye them green and you need to accept that because that’s them expressing themselves’”

“There are two issues – the Supreme Court, and I see a lot of problems with socialism. The Democratic Party is moving way too far left.”

“The Biden now is not the same as the Biden of five years ago or even a year ago. He’s referred to himself as running for the US Senate. After the election they would take him to a doctor and give him a test and say ‘oh, he’s deemed incompetent. Here’s our new president’.”

Even so, not all Trump voters would enjoy the experience of turning out for him again.

“I will basically have to force myself into doing it like I did in 2016 and then go and cry in my car afterwards. I did.”

A few had shed their qualms, however:

“Last time I had a pit in my stomach because I didn’t want Trump but I definitely didn’t want Hillary, so I voted and did the walk of shame, and I was like, what did I do? This time, absolutely 100 per cent. I’m good with it. I’m happy.

“I would lose half my business if I came out with my political views. That’s how bad it is.”

Nor would they necessarily tell anyone what they were doing – something that made them wonder if the polls were picking up the true level of support for the president.

If you’re well educated and in certain circles, if you’re voting for Trump, you keep your mouth shut.”

“I’m afraid I would lose half my business if I came out with my political views. That’s how bad it is.”

“Being a gay Republican is even more of a lynch mob, especially in Georgia. There is a preconception that I’m gay so I’m automatically a Democrat, but I can’t say anything because hell hath no fury if I do that. And I drive a pickup, so I’m automatically a redneck racist. So I got the best of both worlds!”

“One of my neighbours said a lot of Trump supporters are leaners. I was like, leaners? What do you mean, they’re on the fence? He goes, no, they lean in and quietly say ‘yeah, I’m voting for Trump’, but they’re not going to publicly say it;”

“I’ve heard people say that pollsters have asked them, and they flat out lied.”

In Georgia, we spoke to African American voters who had not turned out for Hillary Clinton in 2016, either because they did not think they needed to or because they did not think she deserved their support.

“She was a horrible senator and secretary of state. The Clintons, back when Bill was in office, incarcerated more black people than anybody. So you know, a lot of people weren’t really feeling the Clintons because of those types of things.”

“We just didn’t think he was going to win.”

This time most were resolved to get out and vote.

“The stakes are high right now because we don’t know, it’s just up in the air.”

“The difference between then and now is we have experience. I think we’re woken up. Now we see what could happen and what could possibly happen in the future.”

“It’s traumatic to think that Trump could potentially be president again. But in reality, he may very well be re-elected, because his followers are going to come out and vote. So we have to not make the same mistake.”

“You have a president stand there and say to the white supremacists, ‘stand by’. Not ‘I’m not OK with it, it’s incorrect’, but ‘stand by’. What does that mean?”

They were particularly exercised by the attitude they believed Trump had on race relations.

“You have a president stand there and say to the white supremacists, ‘stand by’. Not ‘I’m not OK with it, it’s incorrect’, but ‘stand by’. What does that mean?”

“He never once expressed his disdain for the actions of the white supremacy groups and the fact that people are bowling people over with their cars. Instead of being presidential about it, he’s saying there are good people on both sides!”

“His whole campaign started with him being divisive over immigration policy, and it’s only escalated. It’s gotten to the point where it’s not even surprising anymore;”

“We need a leader who is going to speak to us or at least directly at us, and not speak about us to other people, if that makes sense.”

“I don’t understand why we are so beholden to the Democratic party. They haven’t done anything for the people we are talking about.”

Even so, there was not a great deal of enthusiasm in the group for Biden or Kamala Harris, or for the Democrats more generally.

“Is Biden the best candidate? No, I’m not going to sit here and say he’s the best choice. But the other option is just insanity;”

“I don’t think the Democrats have learned their lesson simply because they’ve got a weak candidate. I like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but they’re weak;”

“We have to understand that both parties are the same. There’s no difference. Bernie Sanders was surging in the polls and had the popular vote among African Americans, then Biden sneaks in at the last minute and doesn’t really have much to offer. There’s no agenda for black people;”

“Biden is like a lot of these presidents who kind of fake that they’re not racists, but I would rather vote for that than someone who’s out and proud that they’re racists;”

“Kamala is more of the same. As attorney general of California she locked up more black people than any Republican attorney general. There’s no black agenda for the Democrats. I don’t understand why we are so beholden to the Democratic party. They haven’t done anything for the people we are talking about.”

“I completely agree that there should be parties out there that speak for us. But right now, I just feel like we’re in a hole and need to get out of it.”

How did they feel about Joe Biden “taking a knee” in support of Black Lives Matter?

“It’s a game at the end of the day. Sure, it does show some solidarity with us because obviously the Trump administration is completely against it. But do I believe that when Joe or even, heck, Nancy Pelosi got down on one knee that it was a heartfelt message? No.”

“People are hard pressed to understand what Trump will do for the next four years. He just wants to be in office.”

For voters leaning either way, both campaigns’ messages focused on their opponents, with policy largely absent from the debate:

“One of Biden’s main pitches is that Trump is mean. ‘Nobody likes him, so come on over to our side. You don’t want another mean guy for four years, do you?’”

“Trump is saying a vote for Biden is a vote for the extreme left, and Biden is saying a vote for me is just a return to normalcy and some sense of stability and calm.”

“I think people are hard pressed to understand what Trump will do in the next four years. He just wants to be in office. I think a large part of his success is that he doesn’t really stand for anything other than himself.”

“People say ‘I’m going to vote for peace’. And I think to myself, be careful, because if you’re willing to hand over the nation to very progressive, socialist ideas, you might get peace, but you’re going to lose the America that you know.”

While people on both sides yearned for an end to the division and rancour of recent years, many – again on both sides – had their doubts that a Biden presidency would produce such an outcome

“It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the president, I’m not sure he himself could do it.’

“We’ve had conflict well before this, with Trayvon Martin, and that was all with Obama. So just because we have a new president doesn’t mean the conflict is going to end.”

“Why are people saying Trump is the one dividing the country? The people that are in conflict are in conflict because of their belief systems and what they think is important. There are paid agitators like Antifa, and it’s in their best interests to keep everything in chaos to accomplish whatever the heck their agenda is.”

“I know a lot of women especially who just say, ‘I want peace, I’m going to vote for peace’. And I think to myself, be careful, because if you’re willing to hand over the nation to very progressive, socialist ideas, you might get peace, but you’re going to lose America, the America that you know. And you won’t have peace for long, if at all.”

Many in all our groups felt the election was going to be close, often echoing Biden’s observation that the race was neck and neck. Whatever the outcome, there was a widespread expectation that things would get messy.

“If Trump wins it will embolden the extremists to go even further to the extreme. And if Biden wins, the pitchforks are going to come out and you’re going to have mass riots. It’s going to be one of the two.”

Naturally enough, each side thought the other would be the one to cause the trouble.

For Biden-leaners, Trump supporters are “more cult-like. Look at QAnon. That is a fanatical, whacked-out idea. And there are so many people who believe Trump is their saviour.”

“Didn’t they just arrest people trying to kidnap the Michigan governor? We don’t see that happening on the other side.”

But for Republicans, “Picketing the streets, protests, all the things going on right now, I don’t see us doing that.”

“They’re burning down buildings in Seattle and Portland and places like that.”

“I don’t remember rioting in the street when Obama was elected.”

Most were philosophical.

“God’s will is going to be done. He has been Lord over lots of different governmental systems;”

“If Biden wins, if Trump wins, the next day I’m going to wake up, take care of my baby boy, have breakfast with my husband, and the world will continue to go around.

Lord Ashcroft: “Toxic”, “Awesome” – or both? My American election campaign focus groups in Michigan and North Carolina.

16 Oct

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

This week, our virtual focus-group tour of America takes us to two more swing states, one in the rustbelt and one in the sunbelt: Michigan, which voted for the Democrat in every presidential election for 20 years before narrowly backing Donald Trump in 2016, and North Carolina, recently a more Republican-leaning state where polls now give Joe Biden a slim lead.

The week has been dominated by the Senate hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nomination for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The issue is the source of fruitless allegations of hypocrisy on all sides: the Democrats furious that the process is happening at all, given the Senate’s refusal to confirm an Obama nominee during the months before the 2016 election, and the Republicans pointing out that the nominee in question would certainly have been confirmed if the Democrats had had the votes in the Senate.

“If the Democrats were in the same position, they’d be doing the same thing.”

The move annoyed most of Trump’s opponents in our groups, as well as some of his former voters.

“The Senate has totally 180’d on their rule that they made up four years ago… [Republican Senate leader] Mitch McConnell himself said you should not do a Supreme Court nomination during an election year when it was Obama’s turn, but now it’s Trump’s turn, let’s shove this woman through as fast as humanly possible before the election.”

They suspected Trump of wanting to secure a conservative majority on the Court in advance of a potential dispute over the election result, as in 2000.

“He’s already saying ‘election fraud!’ when we haven’t even had the election yet, so it feels very suspicious. It feels like they’re doing everything in their power to make sure he wins no matter what, and they need to have that Supreme Court justice confirmed and in place to make sure that happens.”

Most Trump supporters in our groups, and even a few opponents, saw nothing wrong in the President making the nomination and the hearings going ahead.

“The Constitution says it’s his job to do so, so it’s his job to do so.”

“I don’t really have a problem with it. The President serves four years, not three.”

“If the Democrats were in the same position, they’d be doing the same thing. Obama had the right to do it, and the Republican Senate had the right to say no. It’s the Constitution.”

Even some Biden-leaning voters were worried by the suggestion that the Democrats might appoint more judges to the court to create a liberal majority.

“How many times are we going to be allowed to change the rules? We shouldn’t do something that we would not want them to do either.”

“Biden wouldn’t answer that question, so that kind of gets me a little scared.”

But for some, the Supreme Court question seemed too remote to be very animating.

“I don’t care one way or the other. I mean, what difference does it make to me?”

“He’s had a kind of karma experience… He said it was a hoax and how he’s a super-spreader.”

Otherwise, Trump’s encounter with Covid-19 continued to preoccupy many voters of all shades. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s illness brought forth expressions of concern and goodwill from across the political divide – had this been the case with the president?

“There’s Democrats saying, ‘we wish him all the best,’ and I guess they have to mean it because Pence isn’t much better. But then there are those who say ‘yeah, you deserved it’.”

“He’s had a kind of karma experience where he put it off and was saying it was a hoax. And it did come around, and now he’s considered to be a super-spreader.”

Everyday human sympathy was set against the widespread feeling that he had failed to protect himself or other people.

“He greatly increased his chances. He didn’t take precautions; he didn’t wear a mask.”

“He gave it to all the White House people and didn’t quarantine himself.”

Many felt his wider actions – or lack of them – had led to a higher American death toll than might otherwise have been the case.

“He basically encouraged his followers to come out and be in close contact and not wear masks. He’s helped kill a lot of people, I think.”

“We know that he knew about the dangers of the virus at the very beginning, that it could be spread through the air, and he said ‘it’s not a deal, it’s going to be gone by Easter. Everything’s totally fine’.”

“He wants to come across like he’s bigger than the virus.”

Some took a more forgiving view (“Everyone is going to get it, regardless, until they come up with a vaccine;” “He was trying to avoid panic;” “I don’t think it would have made a difference who was in the White House”), but even a number of his former voters saw Trump’s handling of the pandemic as the emblematic of his presidency.

“Whoever was in charge would have struggled, but he just comes across as too defiant to want to take advice from anybody, the medical profession. His ego just gets in the way the whole time.”

“He just puts his foot in his mouth, or he messes up. I’m sure he had a great idea of coming out and saying he can continue with his work and all that, but the way he does it and presents it just makes him look irresponsible.”

“He wants to come across like he’s bigger than the virus, he’s going to beat it. And he’s surrounded by yes-men. He’s fine with a doctor standing next to him until they disagree one time, then all of a sudden they’re gone.”

“I thought he would rise to the occasion, that he would elevate himself to the office. And then it just seems like a circus.”

Some who had not traditionally voted Republican but had switched to Trump in the hope of seeing change saw all this as the latest in a long line of disappointments.

“He has done stuff, but I think he is for the rich, he’s not for the working middle class. I thought he was going to be more for all the people;”

“For me, what he says doesn’t match what he does. He’ll say, ‘I’m going to pass this executive order’ and it doesn’t actually do anything for the people. Or he’ll say, ‘I’m doing something on healthcare’, but four years later there’s still not a plan to share.”

Though he had not seemed particularly presidential in 2016 –

“I thought he would rise to the occasion. I thought he would elevate himself to the office and he actually wanted to do things for the people. And then it just seems like a circus and it’s accelerating”

“I think people are just fed up with Trump. I think he’s so toxic he’s worn out his welcome. Everything that’s coming out of his mouth is the opposite of what everybody expects from a President.”

A few of these 2016 Trump supporters even worried about what a second term might bring.

“I’ve never seen our country so divided and I don’t like it. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe.”

“What disappoints me most is his refusal to condemn white supremacy. I’m white, but I’m also a Jewish American woman. So that’s terrifying to me – what’s going to happen to me if he gets elected and continues with this rhetoric? I’m afraid for myself. I don’t have a president that I feel cares about me or will stand up for me or protect me – that I’m someone who he dislikes.”

“He’s the first President I actually paid attention to because the way he comes across is awesome. If it wasn’t for this Covid thing, he’s just remarkable.”

But for longer-standing Republican voters, Trump’s antics continued to be the price they were willing to pay – albeit though increasingly gritted teeth – for the policy direction they wanted to see.

“We wanted him to straighten out our economy and get some of our jobs back from these foreign countries and get some more people to work, and yeah, I think he’s done that.”

Relations with China and North Korea, action on immigration and the jobs, and three conservative Supreme Court nominations were also mentioned in his defence.

“It’s just his policies. I know what he wants to do and what I want to stop from happening in the other direction.”

Even so, it was not a decision they all relished:

“I’d say I’m 75 per cent for Trump. But I’ll be taking a good flask of Kentucky bourbon in there to help me colour those dots for him.”

“He’s cognitively not all there. He’s just not.”

Few thought the idea of Biden as president was worrying or inspiring in itself – voters of all persuasions described him as “mild”, “middle-of-the-road,” “laid back” and “the safe pick”. But they were also united in seeing him as a “stop-gap” president.

“If you watch his speeches, he’s cognitively not all there. He’s just not;” “If he doesn’t have a script, he loses his train of thought;” “He’s so super-old!”

The bigger divide was between those who feared he would prove to be a bridge to a much more liberal administration under President Kamala Harris – and those who hoped he would be.

“I think within maybe two years at most, Kamala might be president,” said one Biden-leaning voter. “And then you’ve got one of the most radical people on the left running the country all of a sudden. That’s the one thing that makes me pause about voting for him;”

“It’s more and more obvious that the whole point of the left is to get him in office, and then I think his role is going to diminish, and others in the party that a lot more liberal with their agendas are going to be running things.”

“It worries me, the whole squad. AOC [left-wing New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Kamala and Bernie Sanders;”

“Biden was the obvious pick to be moderate and just vanilla. If he could get them through to the finish line and win, they’re going to take over and do what they want to do.”

For more liberal voters, this was an appealing prospect:

“I kind of like Kamala and, I mean, he’s 78 years old, so I like my chances of getting her in there.”

“Let’s get some distance from this current administration, reset a little bit, and then in the next election let’s hope someone can come in and lead. Like AOC”.

There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country

Liberal voters who stayed at home or backed third-party candidates rather than vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 were determined to toe the line this time, however uninspired they felt (“Another elderly white man in office is not inviting. No, I’m not enthusiastic”).

Some felt guilty at having failed to keep Trump out of office four years ago.

“Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating people in our lives?”

Some felt Clinton had only herself to blame. (“She should have been out campaigning instead of going on Ellen and dancing.)

“One thing that made it easy not to vote for Hillary was being called deplorable”

But others blamed Russia, the electoral college system, or the fact that “there’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country. Idiots and the frickin’ old, racist white men.”

At the same time, their biggest professed hope for a Biden presidency was that America would be less divided and “more unified.” Why would Republicans be more united behind Biden than you were behind Trump?

“Because having him and Harris in those positions will bring an end to that divisiveness, and because I believe in their intellect and hope they wouldn’t think I’m stupid.”

But you think they were stupid to elect him?

“I do believe there was some lack of knowledge, there was some gap. Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

“Trump wants to overpower and bully, and he can’t do that virtually.”

With less than three weeks to go, several of our participants remained undecided. These people wanted to hear more about where both candidates stood on policy issues, especially healthcare.

They were therefore disappointed by Trump’s insistence that he would not take part in the second debate, switched to a virtual format as a precaution against Covid.

Though an appealing idea (“It’s great because you could mute Trump and he couldn’t talk over Biden”), they thought they had the measure of the President’s position.

“He wants to overpower and bully and he can’t do that virtually.”

“Joe reads off a teleprompter when he’s doing stuff in this way. If you’re face to face, Joe has to answer questions.”

Despite Biden’s clear lead in the polls, many of those leaning towards voting for him were notably pessimistic – whether because they thought Trump’s support remained stronger than it looked, or because he would find a way to subvert the democratic result:

“It just feels so unpredictable. I know what I’m going to do, but I have a horrible gut feeling about this.”

“Just by looking through Facebook, people are still behind him, still posting memes. It just seems that they are not changing their minds. I have a hard time seeing and thinking that any of his supporters are actually switching sides;”

“Biden’s going to come up ahead, but I just think Trump is going to pull something. He’s going to argue, and this thing will go on for weeks, and it’s going to go on until he gets his way.”

“He’s appealing to his hardcore base and doesn’t realise he needs more than that to win this time. It’s frustrating, because I believe in a lot of what he wants to do.”

Conversely, Republican-inclined voters we spoke to tended to think a Trump victory was unlikely, not least because he seemed to have made no attempt to reach beyond his already committed supporters.

“He’s appealing only to his hardcore base and he doesn’t realise he needs more than that to win this time. It’s frustrating to me because I believe in a lot of what he wants to do. He’s just not taken the opportunity to gain some of these swing voters that could make it a win for him. And I just don’t think he’s going to win.”

Lord Ashcroft: “I think there might be riots whoever wins.” My American election campaign focus groups in Florida and Wisconsin.

9 Oct

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

In the weeks before the United States elected Donald Trump in 2016, I conducted focus groups to find out what was on people’s minds in swing states around the country.

This year, the Ashcroft in America tour is happening via Zoom, but the aim is the same: to hear what voters themselves are thinking as they weigh their decision.

This week, we began in Florida and Wisconsin, speaking to voters who backed Trump in 2016, having supported Obama four years earlier, and were having second thoughts, Hispanic voters who had helped elect Trump but were now undecided, and centrist Democrats backing Biden with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Our 2016 Trump voters had plenty of complaints, often to do with the way he conducts himself: “We were looking for a complete change and we certainly got that,” says one. “But he fails in my mind with acting the way a President should act.”

“He’s arrogant, he’s not honest, and, you know, he’s our leader. So I just don’t feel we have anybody to look up to.”

“I thought he was a good candidate versus Clinton. But I also feel like when he got into office, his ego sort of took over. All the Twitter stuff – if you’re the president of a country you don’t need to be doing that at three in the morning.”

“Who says you have to like the President?”

Were these things not plain to see when you elected him four years ago?

“I thought the job would knock a few rough edges off him. I thought he would take it down a notch;”

“I guess I expect the President to have some respect for the job. It’s not a reality TV show. And it’s not good enough to be able to say, well, that’s him. Now you’re the President.”

But as we saw during the last campaign and throughout his time in office, many were grudgingly prepared to tolerate Trump’s antics as the price of what they regarded as more important things.

“You have to put aside some of the Twitter stuff and that type of thing. But the one thing you cannot take away from him is that he has done what he said he was going to do.”

“He’s crass, rude, but stands his ground and he does believe in America.”

“Being President of the United States calls for a certain level of decorum and he certainly fails on that, and that is bothersome to me. But you know, you can’t argue with the stock market;”

“Who says you have to like the President? He’s an employee for us. He’s done the job, there’s no doubt about it.”

“I don’t think he believes enough in science or is intelligent enough to accept when he is wrong.”

Though they praised his record on the economy, trade, law enforcement and international relations, many previous Trump voters were more doubtful about his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was not universal – even some opponents said the outcome of such an unprecedented event would probably have been similar whoever was in the White House – but some felt he had taken the wrong attitude and set the wrong tone.

“I found it very disappointing, as I don’t think it was a hoax. I don’t think it’s something you drink Clorox bleach for. I don’t think he believes enough in science or is intelligent enough to accept when he is wrong.”

“He’s been unwilling to back off his initial stance. I would have liked to see him acknowledge a little bit more that this maybe is a bigger thing than he originally thought.”

These mistakes were not necessarily enough for wavering supporters to write him off, however.

“I don’t judge the entire book on just one page”, as one put it. “People who are looking for a consoler-in-chief, that’s just not his personality.”

“He pretended it wasn’t a big deal and then went and caught it.”

But it was notable that Trump’s own experience of the virus, rather than prompting an outpouring of sympathy and concern, often produced the usually unspoken reaction that it served him right – both because of his disdain for masks and social distancing, and his wider handling of the crisis.

“Look where he’s sitting today. That’s ironic. Nobody could have done anything about it but yes, as a leader, he could have done listening to science. But he totally discarded that aspect and went on with his own ingenuity.”

“I hate to say I would like to see him suffer a little bit, but in all reality, he’s not handling it right. The reason he has it is because he didn’t handle the situation correctly.”

“With him getting Covid and his blatant disrespect for wearing masks, that’s a problem for me. More people in the White House are getting infected. Against the blatant disrespect for PPE, I don’t know, it just seems like he could have avoided that and avoided other people getting it as well.

“It was kind of a negative for me that he pretended it wasn’t a big deal and then went and caught it anyway.”

“During the debate he said, oh, Biden, you could be 200 feet away and you’d wear the biggest, stupidest mask ever. He made it kind of an insult to wear a mask, and then he goes and contracts Covid.”

Trump’s declaration on leaving hospital that people should not be afraid of the virus was given short shrift by many, including some of his own voters.

“We all don’t have the resources that he has. How would it affect me or my husband or any of us?”

“I’m a mother of eight kids, I do have something to be afraid of. If I get sick, I can’t care for my children, if my husband gets sick he can’t work. We can’t all afford these Molotov cocktails of medication that he got in hospital to make him feel better.”

“Singing Kumbaya with everybody is not going to work.”

Even with his more doubtful 2016 voters, Trump was on much firmer ground with his handling of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, which many felt had strayed from their original purpose and had been allowed to get out of hand.

“Those crimes committed by those police officers aren’t to be negated, but those are extreme outliers. I don’t see a need to say anything about law enforcement in general.”

“A lot of people in these protests don’t even know what they’re fighting for. They’re just pissed about being locked down. People are just acting like assholes, basically.”

“I feel like a lot of the rioting is staged and it’s been organised by some higher power. When you see pallets of bricks being brought in where there’s a riot happening, readily available for someone to grab a brick, who brought those bricks in? Who staged that?”

“I don’t call these people protesters, they were nothing but thugs and irritants. Gangs breaking the glass of department stores and stealing the merchandise. Those are the people that need to be stopped.”

While most previous supporters backed his willingness to deploy the National Guard, some felt the President could have been firmer.

“It should have been shut down, the violence. In Tampa, there’s been a lot of violence and people’s businesses being burned down and property being destroyed.”

“It should have been harsher. This new age is all about getting attention and seeking attention, and rioting is the perfect way to do it.”

At the same time, they doubted that Biden would take a strong enough stance faced with the same situation – a critical distinction between the candidates for some participants.

“He wasn’t really saying anything, other than ‘let’s just all get along’.”

“One big thing that would affect my family is which side is going to have my [police officer] husband’s back. Singing Kumbaya with everybody is not going to work. There has to be a point where it’s gone too far and there needs to be an authority saying, you know, that’s it.”

“Trump created the monsters in people.”

For many, including some of his previous voters, Trump’s response to the protests was the latest in a long line of actions that had inflamed racial tensions in America, including his rhetoric on immigration.

“There have been racial distances all throughout our existence, but nothing has lit the fire like his torch. He’s igniting the fire.”

“Trump created the monsters in people. And it’s going to take a long time to heal that.”

While most of our Hispanic participants felt that race relations had worsened, there was some debate within the group as to how far Trump could be held responsible

“He’s bringing out the racists that were calm for many years in this country. Now, when he talks, all those racist people say, ‘all right, this is my time’. I’m going to turn 41 in five weeks, and this is the first time in my life living in this country that I feel worried about my safety.”

“I just think some of the Trump supporters are misinterpreting what he meant on illegal immigration. They’ll look at me and think, oh, she’s Mexican, but I’m not, I’m Puerto Rican and a US citizen. They’re yelling at my mother to go back to Mexico. So I don’t think it’s so much Trump, I think it’s the way people interpret things.”

“I would say no. If you’re a racist you’re a racist, you don’t need a president to pull that out. I have a hard time seeing how the actions of one man or a group of men has anything to do with a president.”

With one exception (“I thought it was extremely entertaining”), our former Trump voters found his first TV debate against Biden extremely unedifying.

“Oh it was embarrassing. We are such a joke.”

“When he was talking about Biden’s son, that was just disgusting, really below the belt.”

“I was on track to vote for him until that debate, and then I was ‘not so much’. Now I’m torn.”

While most agreed that Biden himself was a moderate, many felt that as President he would be dominated by more left-wing forces.

“I think there are a significant amount of radical people behind him, very liberal individuals;” “He’s kind of a puppet for Nancy Pelosi and everyone else behind them. He’s pretty old. I don’t see him really standing up for anything except what the Democrats want him to say.”

“You either vote for Trump as the Republican or you get a Democrat, right?”

“I feel like with Biden we’d be more like a socialist country under that kind of leadership. I’m thinking more about the small business and less government Republican side, even though I don’t like Trump as a person.”

This was seen as particularly worrying given concerns about Biden’s age and health, shared by some registered Democrats as well as wavering former Trump supporters. More specifically, they feared he would not last a full term as president, clearing the way for his running mate.

“It looks like he’s probably got dementia. You’ll be having President Harris… He’s the transition-in-chief.”

At best, Harris was an unknown quantity, and at worst a much less moderate Democrat than Biden.

“Even just a few months ago she was calling him a racist. It seems like this Trojan horse play. They’re going to get him into office as president, and then due to his dementia, Alzheimer’s, whatever he has, Kamala will be promoted and they’ll pick someone who’s even more radical to be the VP.”

Biden and Kamala didn’t get along, but then he needed someone who was going to bring in the woman vote and the black vote. And that’s what I hate about politics.”

“My personal issue is that coming from Cuban parents, I cannot stand someone who appreciated Fidel Castro. There were quotes from her saying she lamented the loss of a great leader like Castro, and I would say he is certainly not beloved.”

“I’m about eight out of ten for Trump, primarily because I see Biden as a kind of transition to Kalama Harris and I have a lot of concerns with her.”

Nevertheless, several of our Hispanic and former Trump supporting participants said they would vote for Biden if only he could convince them: “I’m 51 per cent for Trump, but I pray Biden will show me something that will please make me change that. I don’t want a TV show running for another four years in my life, no sir.”

“He’s kind of a puppet. If he showed me he could really stand up for himself, I would probably change. But he hasn’t.”

Whatever happens on 3 November, few expected the election to be over on the night. Many shared President Trump’s professed concerns about the security of mail-in ballots, but most of these were worried about straightforward chaos rather than foul play.

“If you think about how mail gets lost all the time, votes are going to be showing up in December. Is there going to be a scandal like the hanging chads we had in Florida?”

“My father has been dead for 10 years, my mother has been dead for five years, and I got applications for their ballots. That’s not right. If it happens to me, it’s happening everywhere.”

In the event of a defeat, Trump in particular “will just use that as an excuse. He’s going to say ‘all these mail-in votes, they’re not fair. So this election is not fair’.”

Biden was thought more likely to accept defeat, though most thought he would still contest a small Trump victory – although “I don’t think Biden would put up the same exact stink as Trump. He would be quieter about it, more respectful. I don’t think he would sit there and say ‘boo-hoo, poor me’, and make the spectacle that Trump is going to make if the roles are reversed.”

Most of Trump’s former voters said they would support him challenging a narrow result: “If it’s a blowout, a landslide, then suck it up and take the loss. But if it’s close, why did they give Gore a recount back then and not him?”

Even so, they wondered where it might all end.

“He’s going to want to contest it, and I think he would be right to if it was close. But I could see this dragging out for weeks and weeks. It could be a very tumultuous time. We probably won’t know who’s president until late December or even early January.”

“In the present situation with all the protests we have, it could easily come to riots. I think there might be riots no matter who wins.”

I don’t think the unrest would just disappear. ‘OK guys, we lost, let’s go home and find a job’. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”