Some cheered when Donald Trump went over the top, some groaned, some said it was the dawn of a new era, some said it was the end of history, some made comments not suitable for a family newspaper and just about everybody expressed shock.
Six hundred strong, they were part of a floating focus group aboard Crystal Symphony, one of two luxury cruise ships operated by Crystal Cruises, a top-rated company with the questionable judgment to engage me occasionally as a “World Affairs” lecturer, this time aboard a 16-day cruise from Miami to San Diego via the Panama Canal.
It was not a formal focus group, but it functioned as one, with discussions and panels on the campaign before and after Election Day. The group included 20 different nationalities, but the great majority were U.S. citizens and most said they had sent in absentee ballots or participated in early voting, as I did in Annapolis on Oct. 28, before boarding the ship a week before Election Day.
As Crystal Cruises guests, they were not typical; they are older, well-educated, affluent and mostly white. They included more Republicans than Democrats, more avowed conservatives than liberals, some open supporters of Donald Trump, some outspoken backers of Hillary Clinton and a fair number who said they didn’t like either candidate and couldn’t wait for the endless campaign to be over.
In a poll taken Friday, during a final panel discussion, they disclosed how they actually voted: 52 percent for Trump, 38 percent for Clinton and 10 percent for other candidates. It was a more lopsided pro-Trump tally than the national vote, but not different in the outcome. At the same time, a striking 47 percent said they did not believe the president-elect would keep his campaign promises. About 20 percent thought he could and would; the balance said “maybe.”
Using handheld devices, the audience indicated that it thought the most pressing issue in the new president’s in-box was the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. The audience selected defeating ISIS and dealing with world terrorism as the most urgent foreign policy issue, and creating jobs, repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and improving the educational system as the top domestic priorities. Donald Trump, take notice.
The passengers from other countries – they included Brits, Canadians, Australians, Latinos and representatives of perhaps a dozen European and Asian nations – seemed to follow the campaign and election every bit as closely as the Americans. To a person, they seemed shocked by the outcome and worried about the impact a Trump presidency might have on their countries and economies.
The Americans showed their political colors by which cable channel they chose to watch for the election night coverage, The ship stayed studiously neutral by putting CNN on the big screen in one theater and Fox News in another. MSNBC and two British channels – Sky News and the BBC – were available in the staterooms.
Most of the cheering came from the Fox crowd as it became clear that Trump would prevail. Most of the groans came from the CNN-watchers.
Even before Election Day, a man from Florida came up to me after a lecture on the campaign and said, “You know those people who won’t tell pollsters whether they support one candidate or the other and then vote for Trump? Well, I am one of those people. I voted for him before I left Florida.”
When I asked him to explain his choice, he said, “Change. We need change.”
A Florida woman, on the other hand, told me, “I’m a Republican who votes for Republicans. But not this time – not Trump. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him.”
The Clinton enthusiasts were harshly critical of Trump before the election, calling him totally unqualified. After his victory, they were mostly subdued. “Aren’t you worried?” a woman asked me after Trump’s victory. “I am.”
I am, too.