Focus groups look into the minds of independent voters ahead of midterms

A critical group of swing voters were asked to give a brief one-word description of the emotions they feel seeing President Biden.

The responses were gloomy: “Indifferent… mixed with indifferent… bored… ambivalent… frustrated… flabbergasted… lost.

Then the same voters, who had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, were asked to raise their hands for those who would support the former president in a rematch against the incumbent president.

“None of you,” Rich Thau, president of market research firm Engagious, told his focus group Tuesday night in Pennsylvania.

It’s the same thread Thau has seen in newsgroups all year. In six key battleground states – Arizona, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – he asked 89 Trump-Biden voters the same question about how they would vote in a rematch, and only 13 would prefer the former president.

This independent-leaning group has grown quite sour on Biden and the Democrats, but they have little interest in back to a Trump presidency and remain reluctant to support midterm candidates who pose as mini-Trumps. And that may be the key to how the candidates can win the election next month.

“Every time I hear responses like this, which is pretty much every month, it reminds me of a fifth-place team playing a sixth-place team and the fans have to pick one team to support. “Thau said at the end of Tuesday’s show. discussion group.

Thau has been leading his “Swing Voter Project” since March 2019 to explore the qualitative reasons for how voters decide, rather than the quantitative data behind their vote. A self-proclaimed “rabid centrist,” Thau began monthly focus groups studying voters who backed Barack Obama in 2012 and went to Trump in 2016, and since January 2021 has studied Trump-Biden voters.

He is part of a group of researchers and pollsters who, despite growing demands to focus on grassroots voter turnout, have publicly advocated for campaign workers to understand the still central importance of dwindling voter turnout. truly independent voters.

Pollsters Joel Benenson, a Democrat, and Neil Newhouse, a Republican, have done similar work over the past two years for Center Forward, a centrist political organization.

David Winston and Myra Miller, executives of the Winston Group and GOP leadership advisers from the House and Senate, send regular memos to Capitol Hill imploring lawmakers to head down the middle to win races.

Winston used a recent opinion column to spread his two basic rules in politics. “First, the base will reveal itself. This is always the case in both parts. Second, elections are won in the middle,” he wrote.

Conservatives outnumbered liberals by nine percentage points in 2016 and 14% in 2020, according to exit poll data. After narrowly winning the Independents in 2016, Trump lost them to Biden by 13 percentage points four years later, ending his chances of a second term.

“Only one other major party presidential candidate has lost independents by a greater margin than Trump – Walter Mondale in 1984,” Winston wrote.

Thau, whose primary work focuses on public policy messaging for trade associations, dug into key states and, ahead of the 2020 election, found that about three-quarters of Obama-Trump voters planned to stick with Trump.

“These people were hurt very, very tight. They were incredibly stressed. You asked them how they felt last week. It was anxiety, fear, unhappiness,” Thau said in a recent interview, in which he showed highlights from the last few years of research.

This group was also prone to a degree of “xenophobia” and “bizarre conspiracy theories”, he said. But a critical bloc has parted ways with Trump after four years of chaotic governance.

In a March 2021 focus group, Trump-Biden swing voters gave a better, but not great, view of their emotion upon seeing Biden: “Relaxed…some relief…positive…calmer…mostly relieved…trust and relief… renewed pride… regained calm.

In April 2022, after a series of bad news and high inflation, another group of Trump-Biden voters expressed feelings of being simply deflated by the new president: “Bored…confused…lack of confidence…indifferent…apathy…idiot or clumsy”.

They nearly all support abortion rights and disagree with the June Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade, Thau found. They didn’t emphasize abortion rights by voting for Trump in 2016 because they wanted an outsider who would shake things up.

Abortion drives their thoughts as the November elections approach, but inflation is also at the heart of their daily tensions. Yet at the same time, this bracket of voters does not blame anyone in particular for the high costs.

“They don’t usually go to Biden and the Democrats,” Thau said. “They will say it’s the pandemic and all the expenses that come with it. It has to do with supply chains. It has to do with Putin and Russia.

When it comes to news consumption, the vast majority of these swing voters turn to their local TV news channels first, with CNN, Fox News and Facebook providing relief information.

And they usually know very little about federal political debates. Last fall, a group was asked about the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan that had been approved days before: no one knew about it. Another group could not name a single legislative policy Biden was pushing on Capitol Hill at the time.

On Tuesday night, Thau asked if anyone knew the position on abortion of John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate in the critical race for the Pennsylvania Senate. Nobody knew.

But the group clearly favored Fetterman, with nine backing him, two backing Republican candidate Mehmet Oz and two undecided.

These swing voters may not be aware of Fetterman’s strong support for abortion rights, but they adored his outward personality as they described their feelings for him:

The Fetterman-Oz Meme Campaign, Illustrated

Only four of Pennsylvania’s 13 voters said Fetterman’s stroke would count in their vote, while most simply wished him a speedy recovery. “I am concerned about his health for him. I don’t like these libel attacks,” said a 44-year-old man from Lansdale, a suburb northwest of Philadelphia.

According to Winston, the biggest change among independents comes from Hispanic voters, whose ideological transformation puts them at the forefront of this electoral bloc.

When exit polls asked Hispanics to identify their political ideology two years ago, 32% said conservatives, 43% said moderates and 25% said liberals. This closely mirrors how independent voters view themselves ideologically (32-50-18), while it is clearly at odds with how Democrats portray their ideology: 10% conservative, 43% moderate, 46% liberal.

Those views offer big inroads for Republicans with this fastest-growing bloc of voters, whose political views are increasingly shaped by economic conditions, Winston said.

Democrats’ lead among Hispanic voters narrower than 2018, Post-Ipsos poll finds

In the last four midterm elections that overturned House majorities — 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018 — independents have sided with the winning party by more than 12 percentage points in each contest.

“If history is any good predictor, it is the independents, not the two bases, that will determine which party emerges victorious on Nov. 8,” Winston wrote.

And if these independents who decide these races have similar views to Thau’s focus groups, the Democratic candidates have a chance to stand out on their own. These voters “divorce” their view of Biden towards the midterm candidates and instead scrutinize everyone closely, with their somewhat idiosyncratic measuring sticks.

“Biden is not what they think when it comes to voting. They don’t think about him and try to punish Democrats or punish Biden because of what’s happening in the country,” Thau said. “They look at the candidates for this office and who is the best.”

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