These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent a Weekend Together.

Aug. 1, 2019


GRAPEVINE,Tex. — The voters arrived from all over the country: nine of them named John, 10 who’d come from mobile homes, four who lived in South Dakota. Twenty-seven considered themselves extremely conservative; 30 said they were extremely liberal. Twenty-one were out of work and looking for it. Two came with service dogs. At least one did not tell her parents she was coming here, because talking politics is so hard at home that she didn’t want to admit she was flying to Texas to talk politics with people she didn’t know.

These voters — 526 total, representative of Americans who are registered to vote — were invited to spend a weekend in a resort outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. And, as the furor in Washington was just beginning to build over the possible impeachment of the president, Donald Trump’s name barely came up.

As they arrived, and in breaks between their discussions, The New York Times took a portrait of nearly every one of them. Collectively, their faces are a reflection of all American voters.


Put a diverse group of people in a room, the political scientists James Fishkin and Larry Diamond argue, and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic. And in this setting, the political scientists say, pollsters can get a picture of what people believe when they’re not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues.

In Texas in late September, Mr. Fishkin and Mr. Diamond were trying this experiment ahead of the 2020 election with a microcosm of American voters, each one selected from a nationwide survey of thousands of households to resemble the country’s demographic diversity. “America in One Room,” the event was called.

Participants wore nametags without any indication of partisanship, and in the conversations that resulted, it was often hard to tell which camp to place voters in.

A nonpartisan group named Helena raised about $3 million to fly everyone here to a hotel and convention center with cowboy-themed carpets, 10 restaurants and an indoor river walk. The research institution NORC at the University of Chicago conducted in-depth surveys of the group and worked to find the right representation of voters, calling some of them two, three, four times to coax them onto planes or away from home — sometimes for the first time in their lives.

Many of the voters were sure at first that the invitation was a scam — an all-expenses-paid trip to a Texas resort to … give their opinions?


Over four days, mostly in small groups, they debated foreign policy, health care, immigration, the economy and the environment. They talked through policy proposals in a 55-page briefing booklet that made little mention of whom the proposals came from. Partisan trigger words — Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives — were, by design, largely missing from the text.

Often, the language voters used was personal rather than political.

“You have to learn to listen to them,” Mr. Fishkin said. “They don’t talk the way policy wonks talk about an issue. They bring their life experience, their observations. But they’re making arguments when they tell a story.”


In one room, the debate among a dozen voters over what to do about the Affordable Care Act moved from one personal testimonial to another: One man’s deductible rose to $3,000 from $500 after the law took effect. Another man’s family premium had gone up to $2,600 a month. Across the table, one woman said her father had been found to have colon cancer right after the law forced him to acquire insurance for the first time in his life.

“He would be homeless without it,” she said. “I don’t really know how I feel about it either, but I can tell you from personal experience, it saved one life.”

As the room grew more somber, a man across from her said, “But now I can’t argue because of what your dad dealt with.” Everyone broke into laughter.


In a different room, a middle-aged man sure that steep tariffs on China were necessary went back and forth with a young woman who believed the tariffs were hurting her family’s South Carolina farm.

In another room, voters argued about whether Americans would willingly take the jobs that many immigrants do, as a hotel worker whose employee badge identified him as from Mumbai came in to retrieve the coffee cart.

Down the hall that same morning, another group kept brooding over immigration long after the session was supposed to end. London Robinson, a 53-year-old from Chicago, wanted to share one last thing she’d recently seen on her Facebook page, a story of immigrants transported to the United States inside of mattresses.

“When I saw these people cut the mattress, and you see the wire, and you see these are two living individuals in a mattress that was shipped from wherever it was to this country — I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Ms. Robinson, who is African-American. What she saw inside were black bodies, covered in tufts of mattress filling.

“There has to be a better way,” she said. “I can see myself being transported in a mattress.”

Hers were the final words on the topic.


Asked if these conversations had changed their minds at all, most people gave the same answer.

“No,” said Jack Jordan, a 63-year-old conservative from Lansing, Mich.

“No,” said Daniela Regier, a 42-year-old liberal from New Paltz, N.Y. The two had just spent the previous session disagreeing about the wall (Mr. Jordan supports barriers that he points out Congress has talked about building since 2006; Ms. Regier believes a wall will create environmental problems and waste money.) But they could not help themselves from good-naturedly continuing to try to convince each other, even as they agreed that their opinions held firm.

“I did not change my mind about anything,” James Mowrey, a 33-year-old microbiologist from Lincoln, Neb., said during the first full day of discussion. But he thought he understood better why some people feel a moral obligation to resettle refugees.


“I’m sorry, I’m too pigheaded; they didn’t convince me,” said Susan Bosco, a 76-year-old from Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia, who said that in her daily life she rarely encountered people as conservative as those she had met here. “I don’t think the purpose of this conference was to change people’s minds. I think the purpose of this conference was to get people to accept each other’s points of view in a civil manner.”

“I may not have changed my position,” said Bonnie Sumner, 74, from Woodland Park, Colo. “But I’ve changed my understanding of the woman in the group who said, ‘You know what, I had great health care, it worked for me, and the Affordable Care Act changed things, and I’m worse off now.’ I didn’t change my position that I think we should take the A.C.A. and tweak it. But I’ve changed my understanding that there are people who’ve tried their best and done nothing wrong, and it put them in a worse situation.”

“But you already knew that,” chided her husband, whom she had brought along for the weekend.

“But to me,” Ms. Sumner said, “a perfectly rational person who has no political agenda just said to me, ‘Oh, you know what, this was bad for me.’”


In fact, some people did change their minds. Public opinion in general is fluid, shifting as issues become more prominent in the news, or as partisan cues become clearer. But the voters in Texas appeared to shift as a group in some ways that can’t be explained by typical polling movement over time.

NORC surveyed the group before the conference, and again on the same questions at the end; the results were compared with a similar panel of voters who did not get an intense dose of deliberative democracy in the interim. Voters at the event on both the left and the right appeared to edge toward the center. Democratic support receded for a $15 federal minimum wage and for “Medicare for all”; Republican support grew for rejoining the Paris climate agreement and for protecting from deportation immigrants brought to the United States as children.


These answers, Mr. Fishkin argues, better approximate public opinion in a society where voters are informed. And from inside this carefully constructed model of democracy in Texas, the share of participants who said they thought American democracy worked well doubled, to 60 percent.

Many participants described their surprise at finding common ground with one another — a prospect easier to attain when the questions are about increasing economic security or lowering health care bills, and not impeaching the president.


In principle, there is something hopeful in these findings. But an essential part of what happened here will be harder to replicate than the structured discussions. Over several meals, a 24-year-old African-American man, a cashier from Michigan, became close to three 70-something white men in his group. At the bar one night, a 69-year-old retired nurse from Atlanta bought a drink for a woman she’d just met from San Antonio, who was turning 35 that day.

Everywhere there were unlikely pairings of people, just talking, with no moderators.

And then Mr. Mowrey, the microbiologist from Nebraska, walked away from dinner on the last night to say that the people around him had, in the end, changed his thinking about something. He considered himself a free-market guy, someone who believed government should stay out of health care. He now thought that a public option would be a good idea, no small leap on the spectrum of health care positions. The government could create more competition in the market, his group helped convince him.

“They explained it to me in the way I think,” he said. And he seemed pleased to have changed his mind.

Everyone on one map






13 Michganders, including Mary, Toni and Karen from the Upper Peninsula

Benjamin from

Sangerville, Maine

Leslie from

Wolf Point, Mont.

Maria and Alonzo

from southeastern Idaho

74 Californians, including Kelly from San Diego

Andrew from

Pukalani, Hi.

Kenneth from Key West, Fla.

Benjamin from

Sangerville, Maine

13 Michganders, including Mary, Toni and Karen from the Upper Peninsula

Leslie from

Wolf Point, Mont.

Maria and Alonzo

from southeastern Idaho

74 Californians, including Kelly from San Diego

Andrew from

Pukalani, Hi.

Kenneth from Key West, Fla.


source.

more recommended stories



LuvNaughty | We're here to get you off The Lazy Days | Procrastinate right Latest Media News | Stay updated with us