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What a group of Pennsylvania voters thinks of Trump, Biden, protests, looting, and the conventions

Voters in our Election 2020 Roundtable grappled in candid and at times emotional ways with some of the issues defining the race between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

The Inquirer's Election 2020 Roundtable.
The Inquirer's Election 2020 Roundtable.Read morestaff

No one thought too highly of the Democratic or Republican conventions — although Republicans already inclined to support Joe Biden said his convention made them more comfortable doing so. There are unsurprising partisan and racial divides when it comes to the occasional civil unrest that has followed mostly peaceful protests across the country against police brutality. But there is also an opportunity to bridge at least some of those divides.

Those are some of the takeaways from the first convening of The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable. The Roundtable brings together a representative group of 24 voters from across Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, for a series of open, virtual conversations about politics, policy, and the presidential election.

During more than four hours of discussion that stretched across two days last week, Roundtable members, who were divided into two smaller groups, grappled in candid and at times emotional ways with some of the issues defining the election between President Donald Trump and Biden.

Here’s what some of them said. Learn more about The Election 2020 Roundtable here.

Mostly ‘pep rallies’ and ‘theater’ at the conventions

Most Roundtable members said they watched only some or none of either party’s convention. Very few watched a lot of the eight nights of programming. Democrats and Republicans alike variously described the conventions last month as “nothing but theater,” “performance,” “an infomercial,” and “pep rallies.”

“Without the audience, without the people in funny hats … it’s just not the same," Jonathan Taylor, a 62-year-old Republican in Gettysburg, said of proceedings that were mostly virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It left me flat, I hope the next conventions have an audience.”

And almost no one said that what they saw — or read about in news reports or watched on social media later — had changed their impressions of the candidates or their campaigns in any significant way.

» READ MORE: A Pennsylvania town once known as ‘communism on the prairie’ is all about Trump now

There was a notable exception: Republicans who didn’t back Trump in 2016 said Biden’s acceptance speech and his convention generally, which included appeals from old-guard GOP figures like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, made it easier for them to vote for the Democratic nominee.

“I was impressed by Joe Biden’s speech," said Scott Young, 51, of Bucks County. "He’s never been a great orator and he delivered a statesman’s speech.”

Drew Jennings, a 47-year-old, self-described “in-the-middle voter” from Chester County, said the Democratic convention “changed my mind a little bit in terms of the direction of the party.”

And both Democrats and Republicans said it was their party that put on the more optimistic convention.

“The DNC was talking about how awful things are. The RNC was talking it up,” David Graham, a 66-year-old Republican in Johnstown, said in a refrain echoed by other Republicans — and expressed in its mirror opposite by Democrats.

Divides over Black Lives Matter, police, protests, and unrest — but also empathy

There were moments of palpable anguish in discussions that began with recent unrest in Kenosha, Wis., where the shooting of Jacob Blake led to renewed protests that were followed by property destruction and sometimes violent clashes between protesters and counterprotesters. Trump has tried to make the civil unrest a defining campaign issue against Biden.

Multiple white Republicans were deeply critical of the looting, and what they saw as unfair criticism of police — including some who expressed some support for Black Lives Matter protesters.

“Each individual community has different problems and they need to work on that. But the violence has turned a lot of people away from the cause," said Lauren Jessop, a 62-year-old Republican from Easton. “Black Lives Matter. Nobody I know disagrees with that.”

But the scenes of destruction, she said, “turned some people away, and it’s a mess. Not all police are perfect, but we need our police, and they’re taking so much abuse.”

Another Republican pointed to what he described as “Marxism” at the root of Black Lives Matter. That conflates the worldwide protest movement with a loosely organized activist organization of the same name. But it’s an argument increasingly made by Trump’s allies, and one that interviews show resonates with many of his supporters.

Vanessa Benton, a 54-year-old Black Democrat in Philadelphia, dismissed any focus on “Marxism” or “socialism” as a distraction.

“I don’t want to discuss Marxist vs. socialist. I don’t care,” she said. “I want Black people to stop being unfairly killed by police officers.”

» READ MORE: 5 questions that will help decide the presidential race in Pennsylvania

Ezelle Sanford III, of Philadelphia, lamented that while some might ultimately agree on the need for police reform, the debate is “focused through the lens of race, which is a wedge between people.”

“People are forming opinions about a slogan with no information about what the slogan actually means,” said Sanford, 30. “Speaking as a Black man, seeing videos of people who look like me time and time again being shot dead in the street, regardless of the proportionality, is affecting me.”

Some Trump supporters expressed a concern that the racial reckoning in America is branding them as racists.

“My wife and I raised our biracial grandkids," said Graham, the Johnstown Republican. “I lived what they lived. I saw the hassles they got. I am very insulted when people refer to me as racist just because I’m white. That’s what bothers me about these protests.”

Unprompted, multiple Republicans said Black people aren’t the ones looting.

“It’s not the Black folks that are doing this. It’s these white punks,” Graham said.

Benton pointed to the aftermath of the Sixers winning the NBA championship when she was a child to argue that the protests and the rioting aren’t connected.

“I remember running out of my house with my family, riding down Broad Street, just celebrating," she said. “Celebration lasted an hour or so, and then a whole other attitude took over the city and it became destructive. ... I never viewed the people who were celebrating and lumped them in with the people who were being disruptive. They were two different groups of people.”

There were moments that gave hope for genuine connection when respectful conversations take place across partisan, racial, ideological, and geographic divides. Near the end of our convening, Melissa Robbins, a 47-year-old Democrat, spoke at length about how she sees the stakes in November.

“As long as we have someone like Donald Trump at the helm … we Black people, we’re in big trouble,” she said. “I’ve never felt so unsure. I’ve never felt so all over the place. To be Black in America is terrifying right now.”

Mary DeBeer, a 66-year-old independent from Armstrong County, visibly affected, said shortly after: “Something’s gotta happen.”

Jennings, the Chester County Republican, said: “There’s clearly a lot of pain, even just in a dozen people.”