By Rich Thau
Think about the atypical person who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. Then consider a different flavor of atypical: the person who voted for Trump in 2016 and flipped to Joe Biden in 2020.
In partnership with the Schlesinger Group, my firm Engagious has spent the last two years conducting monthly focus groups with these swing voters, first with Obama-Trump voters from March 2019 through November 2020. Then, after the 2020 election, we switched our focus to Trump-Biden voters. Since this January, I have moderated eight focus groups via Zoom with a total of 52 Trump-Biden voters from the 10 most competitive 2020 presidential battleground states: Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina.
These are the swing voters who political observers and campaign strategists will be obsessing over as the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential campaigns heat up. Democrats will try to convince these voters to stick by them, while Republicans will try to win them back. These folks could easily sour on Joe Biden and pivot back to the Republicans if the President doesn’t deliver -- or delivers in ways they don’t like. Decisions made by Republicans, too, will influence voting behavior.
In this article, I explore the key issues shaping how these 28 men and 24 women view our current political environment, and then describe the policy issues that will impact the upcoming campaigns, focusing on five key takeaways.
TRUMP-BIDEN VOTERS ARE DONE WITH TRUMP, BUT NOT THE GOP
These voters expressed deep dissatisfaction with Trump, especially relating to his personality, behavior, his handling of the pandemic, and the U.S. Capitol riots. In our January focus groups (post-inauguration), respondents provided these insights:
First, if the presidential election had been held on March 1, 2020 between Trump and Biden -- before the pandemic began to impact our country -- 10 of 12 would have voted for Biden (with one undecided). For many, Trump lost their support for reasons that preceded the pandemic. As to what animated them, 10 indicated they voted against Trump, while only three voted for Biden.
Second, none believes Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him. Only one of 13 had personally heard about what they might consider voter fraud or voting irregularities where they live from people they trust.
Third, while only one in 13 believes Trump should be criminally charged with inciting a mob, they aren’t letting him off the hook. Eight agreed with his second impeachment, and nine believe he should be prohibited from ever holding office again.
These voters do not want Trump to run for President again, a topic we posed in our January, February, and March focus groups. And virtually none would vote for him if he decides to run in 2024. The most commonly used words to describe how they would feel if they heard he was running for President again in 2024 were “angry,” “disbelief,” “shock,” and “fearful.”
Despite their negative feelings surrounding Trump, they aren’t writing off the GOP entirely, which is good news for the party. A second chance is what Republicans in Congress will need from voters in 2022 if they want to regain majorities in the House and Senate. And according to 12 of 13 of these swing voters in January, they’re willing to give Republicans that chance.
I asked them:
“All of you turned away from the Republican Presidential candidate in the last election. Who also turned away from the Republican party itself, and feels like you cannot vote for their candidates for the Senate or House in 2022?”
Only one of the 13 told me that she was done with the GOP. Most instead offered comments like this:
“I usually vote for who the best candidate is going to be. One person [Trump] can’t ruin the whole party,” said Brian, a 57-year-old from Scranton, PA.
“Overall, the Republican Party, they’re made up of people who are trying. Yeah, they make mistakes, just like Democrats make mistakes,” added Matthew, a 28-year-old from Roswell, GA. “I wouldn’t rule out any one party just because they had one bad President.”
SOME SWING VOTERS ARE DONE CALLING THEMSELVES REPUBLICANS, ASSOCIATING THE PARTY WITH NEGATIVE TRAITS
In February, I asked our 14 Trump-Biden respondents to look backward in order to look forward, posing this question: “Imagine you were 18 years old again and registering to vote for the first time. Watching the current political scene, would you register as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent?”
Among these respondents, eight are currently registered as Republicans. And the key point that should command the GOP’s attention is this: Only one of these eight would choose to be a Republican if he or she could magically return to age 18 and re-register.
And the GOP isn’t picking up swing voters in other parties. Among the other six respondents, two are registered Democrats who’d remain Democrats; two are registered Democrats who’d become Independents; and two are registered Independents who’d remain Independents.
What explains the registered Republicans’ change of heart? There are a lot of reasons, but for some, the Trump years have pushed them away from the GOP and into the Democrats’ arms -- where they felt far more welcome.
“I just think watching how things unfolded over the last year, I just feel like the Democrats have been so much more progressive and inclusive, and tried to bring everybody together rather than divide everyone,” said Shelley, a 53-year-old from Minnesota.
This sentiment was echoed by Danna, a 51-year-old Arizonan. “I’ve been Republican my whole life, and my father has too. I was raised that way -- up until this last [election]. And I just think that party [the Democrats], I guess before, it seemed like it was…more liberal than I wanted to be. But it seems like with Biden in place…he sticks to his party -- but he’s trying to outreach to everyone and just trying to be unified and obviously bipartisan. But he just seems to be out for the good for everybody. He’s open and empathetic to what everybody needs,” Danna said.
In March, we asked 12 Trump-Biden voters the following question: “Imagine the Republican party -- the totality of the party -- was a person, just one person. What characteristics would this person have?”
I was not asking them to describe any particular person, but rather to “pretend that the attributes you associate with the Republican party were encapsulated in one person.”
The answers these Trump-Biden voters gave were interesting, and may shed light on how four years of Trump have affected perceptions of the party. Their responses included “stubborn,” “unreliable,” “selfish,” “greedy,” “closed-minded,” “anti-immigrant,” “inconsistent,” and “hypocritical.”
I can remember conducting focus groups with moderate voters nearly a decade ago, posing the same question, and hearing adjectives such as “old,” “rich,” “white,” and “male” to describe typical Republicans. I don’t think the new adjectives represent an improvement in terms of selling the party to voters.
Yes, this is just one small sample. But the overall sense of the people involved was pretty clear: Trump-Biden voters were largely negative about the typical Republican.
If there’s any silver lining for the GOP, it’s something I uncovered in our January focus groups. Most Trump-Biden voters we interviewed are willing to consider Republican congressional candidates in 2022. They will not let Trump’s negative halo cast a shadow over everyone with an “R” after his or her name. These voters say they will judge the person on his or her merits, not by party affiliation.
This suggests that the most successful Republican candidates in swing states next year will be those who distance themselves the furthest from their own party.
THE REPUBLICAN PUSH TO MAKE “CANCEL CULTURE” A CAMPAIGN ISSUE ISN’T RESONATING
The Republican party has doubled down on the culture war -- and “cancel culture” in particular. In April, I asked 13 Trump-Biden voters what they thought about cancel culture.
They told me some interesting things.
First, none of them had any personal experience with it: None had been victims of, or targeted by, cancel culture.
Second, it wasn’t even clear that they agreed on what cancel culture was. When pressed, only six of the 13 were able to offer a definition for it, and those definitions varied. Notably, only five respondents said they believe American culture is under assault by progressive activists who want to cancel things they deem offensive.
Curious about how deep their concerns about cancel culture run, I showed respondents a list of seven individuals or groups that have been “canceled.” I described the circumstances, including Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson (whose names were supposed to be removed from San Francisco public schools until an about-face by the school board in early April), Dr. Seuss, Gina Carano, J.K. Rowling, the prime-time Fox News lineup of opinion hosts, Mike Lindell, and Goya Foods.
I asked how many of these examples really troubled them. There were only two that stood out: removing the former Presidents’ names, and having six of Dr. Seuss’s books no longer published.
Ten members of the group said they were very troubled about the presidential school renaming.
“I think with presidents that owned slaves, I think you can’t change history and it worries me erasing history,” said Susan, 47, from Roswell, Georgia. “I think that’s important to know, that that’s part of our American history. And it worries me taking statues down, and re-naming things, and erasing what’s made our country what it is. It doesn’t mean that you condone those things.”
Eight members said they were very troubled by the Dr. Seuss books. Ellen, 60, from Scottsdale, Arizona, said, “Dr. Seuss is dead, but I feel fairly certain that Dr. Seuss was not trying to alienate any groups, or had any political motivation in writing those books. And I don’t think they harm anyone.”
And perhaps most interestingly, all 13 thought that cancel culture is a two-way street, with not only liberals canceling conservatives, but conservatives canceling liberals. They offered a few examples, including Nicki Minaj and AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
These groups’ attitudes suggest Republicans may be overplaying their hand on cancel culture. If Democrats are willing to stand up to the most egregious examples, they might be able to neutralize this weapon in the culture war.
BIDEN HAS MAINTAINED GOODWILL WITH THESE VOTERS, WHICH PROVIDES HIM WITH AN OPENING FOR HIS POLICY AGENDA, INCLUDING INFRASTRUCTURE
Biden has enjoyed the “honeymoon” phase of his presidency with most indicating they have no regrets voting for him. When we asked respondents in our March and April focus groups to tell us the emotion they feel most strongly when they see Biden on TV or on their device, the most common responses included “relieved,” “relaxed,” and “calm.” The Trump presidency was a tumultuous period for many of these voters, and they’re happy to return to a sense of normalcy.
Also, it’s helpful to Biden politically that he’s pursuing, or successfully pursued, a number of policies these voters support, including $1,400 stimulus checks to individuals, re-committing the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement after President Trump pulled us out, and infrastructure.
In April, I interviewed 13 Trump-Biden voters and spent some time asking about the President’s infrastructure plan. While the sample size is admittedly small, the key takeaways -- which point to Biden’s opportunities and vulnerabilities -- offers significant insight into how this key demographic views the Biden agenda.
Eight of 13 think America’s infrastructure is in need of immediate attention, but just six say they support Biden’s plan.
“I agree that the improvement needs to happen throughout the country,” said Luis, 41, from Orlando, FL, who supports the plan. “That’s also I believe how they’re going to add additional jobs for the economy to pick up again.”
The worry, and hesitancy, is how such a massive bill is going to be paid for. Twelve of the 13 respondents agreed that any infrastructure bill should be paid for by raising taxes on large corporations and wealthy individuals -- not the middle class.
None think President Biden has done a good job so far of explaining that he intends for this legislation to be paid for mainly by large corporations and wealthy individuals.
But one source of funding for the legislation is totally off-limits: debt. None say they support borrowing money to pay for infrastructure.
“If we were to just tax corporations -- like Amazon doesn’t pay any taxes -- if we were to use just that money alone, it would solve so much, said Daniel, 34, from Las Vegas, NV. “When you have options like that available, it doesn’t make any sense why you would have to borrow when you could have people just pay their fair share.”
Finally, 11 said it matters a lot that the President’s infrastructure bill be supported by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and not just Democrats.
In short, the President has his marching orders from swing voters: work in a bipartisan fashion, let the rich pay the tab, and don’t incur more debt.
THEY’RE PAYING A LOT OF ATTENTION TO WHAT’S HAPPENING AT THE BORDER -- AND THEY WANT BIDEN TO TAKE A FIRMER APPROACH TO STOP THE FLOW OF MIGRANTS
In our March focus groups, respondents expressed numerous concerns about what is happening at our southern border, especially with so many young, unaccompanied children arriving.
So, what should President Biden do about the problem? Kimberly, a 48-year-old from Cave Creek, AZ, said he should take a firmer approach: “I think he's not being firm enough to say like, ‘Hey, people, it's not that we're against immigration, but…if you send your kids or you try to come here, we literally have nowhere to house you.’”
When I pushed respondents for concrete steps to deal with the kids in U.S. custody, respondents struggled to suggest good options. One thought we should shelter children temporarily with American foster care families, an idea some others endorsed.
What was abundantly clear is that it’s easier to think about these kids as “the other” and keep them at arm’s length, rather than as humans in desperate straits. This sentiment was revealed in a very animated exchange I had with Janet, 64, who lives in Phoenix, AZ. At first, when I asked her what we should do with a seven-year-old who came by himself to the U.S. border, she dismissively said, “Nothing. It’s not our responsibility.”
I pressed harder. What about the prospect of “starving kids dying on our border”? Her response: “Where do we draw the line and say ‘enough’? We have starving children that are actually Americans that we do nothing about….It shouldn’t be our problem.”
Then I pushed even harder, noting that the kids at the border might not only starve, but might also be raped or murdered. “We have zero moral responsibility for them as far as you’re concerned,” I summed up, with the hint of a question in my voice.
That’s the moment I saw a different side of Janet. “OK, if you’re going to bring morals into it, that changes the whole thing,” she said in a different tone of voice. At that point Janet started referencing “those poor children and women.” She acknowledged “we do, as human beings, of course” have a moral responsibility for these migrants. And then she endorsed feeding them while here and sending them back “safely” to their home country. Her final caution: “We can’t be the world’s savior.”
Indeed, we cannot. But we can’t turn off our collective conscience merely because reality is too unpleasant. In the end we must bring both rationality and empathy to the conversation.
About the Author:
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, which is executed monthly in partnership with Schlesinger Group.