Eight East Texans laughed, smiled and took notes as they watched 10 Democrats try to convince them that they should be president of the United States.
This focus group of Democrats from Smith County included four men, four women, Latinos and African-Americans. Their ages ranged from 21 to 67.
The Center for Opinion Research at UT Tyler, which specializes in statewide political research, organized the focus group to find out what voters are thinking.
The center has published polls on the 2018 U.S. Senate race and the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. president. This was the first public focus group.
Mark Owens, a UT Tyler professor, said this was a rare occasion because almost all of the Democratic candidates were on one stage. He said the advantage of the focus group versus a poll is that members are able to give open-ended answers.
“They can actually connect multiple issues that stand behind their support or lack of support for a candidate,” Owens said. “That’s helpful for us to guide where we should be looking.”
Prior to the debate, UT Tyler assistant professor of political science Kenneth Bryant Jr. moderated a discussion in the group as they described how it felt to be Democrats in conservative East Texas. They talked about how they are treated and how that affects participation in local elections.
When Bryant asked them to identify a favorite candidate, no one picked just one. They all said there were at least a couple of candidates who interested them, and they were still trying to pick a favorite.
Bryant said the focus group indicates there are more undecided voters in East Texas than journalists might believe.
After the first half of the debate, a majority of the focus group said they thought Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, was doing the best. Some members said Vice President Joe Biden was doing poorly. One wanted to hear more from former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, of Texas.
On health care, members responded to several minutes of debate among Biden, Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont. During that time, Biden pressed the senators to describe how much a Medicare-for-all plan would cost and how they would pay for it.
No one in the focus group said they supported eliminating private insurance to create Medicare-for-all. Several said they would support some kind of hybrid of public and private insurance, but they did not know what it specifically would look like.
They spoke about their concerns about health care costs, and said they would like to hear the candidates talk more about costs. One said he had been uninsured for the past four months. Another described how expensive health insurance premiums are for her family.
After the debate, focus group members agreed unanimously that Warren won the debate. Six of eight said she was the most trusted to make policy as president, while two said they trusted Buttigieg.
Three said O’Rourke was the most likable; two said Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, was the most likable; and one said former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the most likable.
“Our goal is to have a representative group,” Owens said. “We have to expect, or project, that (each) person actually holds the views of about 10 more people.”
The Texas primary is March 3, and the General Election will be Nov. 3, 2020.
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