CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Donna Ryan is a retired director of finance who describes herself as a political moderate and whose political hero is Ronald Reagan. She worries about the national debt, the threat from the Islamic State, and a decline in public morality hastened by social media. She doesn't believe the United States is particularly great now -- she rates it at a six when asked to place the country's present condition on a one-to-ten greatness scale -- and she would like to see an America that is "free and truly leading the world in everything, including morals."
Donna wanted to vote for Donald Trump. For much of the campaign, up until the summer's party conventions, she was drawn to the appeal of a businessman, and especially a non-politician, running for president. (She still has warm feelings for Ben Carson, whose candidacy she admired.) But she can no longer support Trump and has "pretty closely decided" to vote for Hillary Clinton.
"I so much wanted Trump," Donna told a focus group held Tuesday night in the Charlotte area by the Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "I so much wanted a non-politician. But I don't trust him, and I've become afraid of him."
Why afraid? asked Hart.
"Because I just don't think he knows when to shut up," Donna answered. "If he would just say, I'm a businessman, I'm not a politician, I'm going to make America great again -- and stop right there -- then I would vote for him."
When did Trump lose you? Hart asked.
"Around the summertime, so it guess it was around the conventions," Donna answered. "I started getting nervous. He just went off and his face gets all red." Another Hart question: When his face gets red, what does that say to you?
"I see a temper, a temper tantrum, like a little boy," Donna said. "I had five brothers, and I remember that face. And that's when I got scared of him."
"So I started to listen more to Clinton. I don't like Clinton, let me tell you, and I don't trust her, but I think she's the lesser of two evils."
There were a dozen people in Hart's group, six men and six women. They were all what Hart called "late deciders" -- they had made their choice in the last couple of months -- or were still undecided. Of the men, three appeared to support Trump, with some reservations, while two appeared to less reluctantly support Clinton. One was difficult to read. The ones who supported Trump worried a lot about the Supreme Court and on that basis chose to back the Republican. (Indeed, for most of the Trump leaners, the future of the Court was nearly the only reason cited to explain their support.)
But it was the women who told the story of the group -- and perhaps the election.
Another woman, Jennifer, began by saying she is still undecided. "I'm kind of like Donna," she said. "I wanted to like Trump. But I don't know that I can, because it's embarrassing the way he acts, his temper tantrums. I think he's just an embarrassment to our country. I don't embrace Clinton, but I'd vote for her. It's probably going to be a vote against Trump."
By the end of her remarks, Jennifer didn't seem so undecided anymore.
Still another woman, Denise, said she too is undecided, but leaned a little the other way. "I'm leaning slightly towards Trump based on Supreme Court decisions, national security, pro-life," Denise said. "Mainly for what the party stands for, not as much the candidate."
Hart asked Denise if she had anything to say to Donna -- that is, perhaps to persuade her it's OK to support Trump.
"No," said Denise, adding that it's a personal decision. She appeared to completely understand her fellow group members' choice not to support Trump.
As the talk went on, it became obvious that Trump could have had the support of Donna and Jennifer, and could have had the undivided support of Denise. Trump did have their support when the summer began -- and remember that was after a crazy and contentious primary season, when Trump started a zillion controversies, from dissing John McCain to calling for a ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S. to allegedly mocking a disabled reporter to declining to disavow David Duke to going after a judge of Mexican descent. Even after all that, Trump still had a real chance to win Donna's, and Jennifer's and Denise's strong support.
But Trump let it all get away. And it didn't happen with the leak of the "Access Hollywood" tape, or with the accounts of women who said Trump tried to grope them. No, it appears Trump blew it with many women beginning with the conventions, when he formally entered a one-on-one contest with Hillary Clinton. Under the heightened scrutiny of a general election race, with press coverage turning sharply negative, Trump's fight with Khizr Khan, his remarks about "Second Amendment people," his extended fight over the 1996 Miss Universe -- those new controversies, piled on top of the pre-existing controversies from the GOP primary season, finally took Trump down. Everything after that was just extra.
To watch the session was to see the great big, beautiful opportunity Trump -- even the most imperfect Trump -- had to win the loyalty of voters who wanted something new. He had a golden chance and didn't do it.