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Why Donald Trump Survives Attacks on Policy

When a dozen Republican and independent voters gathered around a table in St. Louis Tuesday night and talked about Donald Trump, about the last thing they seemed to have on their minds was policy and ideology.

They admired Mr. Trump because he was tough. They worried about him because he was erratic. But they said remarkably little about his stances on major issues. They were more likely to raise objections about his temperament than about his policies.

“They had a problem with his demeanor and his behavior,” said Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who brought the 12 voters together for a focus group for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “There was not some ideological rift with these people.”

The two-hour-long discussion provided a window onto some of the challenges facing Mr. Trump — and also onto why his status as front-runner in the Republican presidential field has been so durable.
Why Donald Trump Survives Attacks on Policy
Mr. Trump has built a commanding and growing lead among GOP primary voters in spite of concerted efforts by his rivals to call him on his policies. He has been criticized for changing his position on issues like abortion; for being vague on issues like reducing the deficit; for offering contradictory tenets of foreign policy, veering between tough talk and isolationism; and for his frequent departures from conservative orthodoxy on issues like trade.

All that has been thrown at Mr. Trump during the primary campaign, and seemed to matter little to voters inclined to support him. In the focus group, they didn’t even seem to care if he meant what he said. Asked about one area about which Mr. Trump has been very specific — his signature immigration policy — eight of the 12 said they did not believe he would actually build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or deport millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally.

That suggests that people are not being drawn to Mr. Trump because of substantive policies; but neither are policy disagreements likely to drive them away. Exit polls in several early-voting states showed his support came heavily from people looking for a strong leader more than for a candidate they agree with. In South Carolina, for example, 78% of GOP primary voters looking for a candidate who “tells it like it is” backed Mr. Trump; he won only 8% of those who want a candidate who “shares my values.”

Mr. Hart’s focus group was assembled to reflect the GOP base, the kinds of voters the party’s nominee will have to secure to win. There were five people who voted for Mr. Trump in the Missouri primary, five who voted for Mr. Cruz, one who backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich and one who did not vote in the GOP primary.

When asked to give Mr. Trump advice, both supporters and skeptics said he needed to dial back his harsh, provocative tone.

“I just don’t think he is presidential quality,” said Aaron Smith, 45, who voted for Mr. Cruz.

Joyce Reinitz, 61, another Cruz backer, said Mr. Trump needed “a social filter.”

Even Kevin Rotellio, 44, one of the strongest Trump backers in the group, believed he should “tone it down a bit.”

But when they were all asked to say whether they would vote for Mr. Trump in the general election, all but two were certain they would back him. That, Mr. Hart said, suggests Mr. Trump is well positioned to unify the party’s base in the fall in spite of their reservations about his character.

“This is a person with serious challenges, but they are more a low hurdle in terms of getting these votes,” Mr. Hart said.

The one rallying point for everybody is defeating Hillary Clinton, he said. “She is the glue that unites the group.”

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