The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Independent voters don’t want mini-Trumps, are bored by Biden

Researchers who study independents advise ‘elections are won in the middle,’ even though many Republicans are not heeding the message

When asked during a recent focus group, independent voters were unaware of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman's strong backing of abortion rights, but they said they loved his outsider persona. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
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A critical group of swing voters was asked to give a brief, one-word description of the emotions they feel upon seeing President Biden.

The answers were bleak: “Indifferent … mixed to indifferent … bored … ambivalent … frustrated … flabbergasted … lost.”

Then the same voters, who had cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, were asked for a show of hands for those who would support the former president in a rematch vs. the sitting president.

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

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

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

“Whenever I hear answers like this, which is basically every month, it reminds me of a fifth-place team playing a sixth-place team and the fans have to choose just one team to root for,” Thau said at the conclusion of Tuesday’s focus group.

Thau has led his Swing Voter Project since March 2019 to explore the qualitative reasons for how voters make up their minds, rather than the quantitative data behind how they vote. A self-described “raging centrist,” Thau began monthly focus groups studying voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 and went to Trump in 2016 and, since January 2021, he has studied Trump-Biden voters.

He’s part of a collection of researchers and pollsters who, despite the growing clamor for focusing on the turnout of base voters, have publicly pleaded for campaign operatives to understand the still-central importance of the shrinking number of 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 policy organization.

David Winston and Myra Miller, the heads of the Winston Group and advisers to House and Senate GOP leadership, send regular memos to Capitol Hill pleading with lawmakers to steer toward the middle to win races.

Winston used a recent opinion column to air his two rules of thumb in politics. “First, the base will turn out. It always does in both parties. Second, elections are won in the middle,” he wrote.

Conservatives outnumbered liberals by nine percentage points in 2016 and by 14 points in 2020, according to exit polling data. After narrowly winning 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 larger margin than Trump — Walter Mondale in 1984,” Winston wrote.

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

“These people were wound very, very tight. They were unbelievably stressed. You asked them what emotion they felt in the last week. It was anxiety, fear, unhappiness,” Thau said in a recent interview, during which he showed highlights from the past several years of research.

This group also was inclined to some degree of “xenophobia” and “bizarre conspiracy theories,” he said. But a critical bloc broke away from Trump after four years of chaotic governance.

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

By April 2022, after a run of bad news and high inflation, a different group of Trump-Biden voters expressed feeling just deflated by the new president: “Bored … confused … lack of confidence … uninterested … apathy … silly or goofy.”

They almost all support abortion rights and disapprove of the Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Thau has found. They didn’t place much emphasis on abortion rights while voting for Trump in 2016 because they wanted an outsider who would shake things up.

Abortion animates their thoughts heading into the November elections, but inflation is also very central to their everyday stresses. Yet at the same time, this sliver of voters does not blame anyone in particular for high costs.

“They typically don’t go to Biden and the Democrats,” Thau said. “They will say that it’s the pandemic and all the spending that came out of the pandemic. 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 first turn to their local TV news stations, with CNN, Fox News and Facebook providing backup information.

And they typically know very little about federal policy debates. One group last fall was asked about the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan that had been approved just a couple of days before: No one knew about it. Another group could not name a single legislative policy that Biden was pushing on Capitol Hill at that moment.

On Tuesday night, Thau asked if anyone knew the abortion position of John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s critical Senate race. No one knew.

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

These swing voters may be unaware of Fetterman’s strong support for abortion rights but they loved his outsider persona in describing their feelings toward him: “Weed … different … tax evasion … unpolished … tall … plain-spoken.”

The Fetterman-Oz meme campaign, illustrated

Seven of the 13 Pennsylvania swing voters said Fetterman’s stroke concerned them, but only three said it would factor into their vote. Most just wished him a speedy recovery.

“I’m concerned about his health for him. I don’t like these smear attacks,” said a 44-year-old from Lansdale, a northwest suburb of Philadelphia.

According to Winston, the biggest shift in independents comes from Hispanic voters, whose ideological transformation is placing them at the forefront of this voting bloc.

When exit pollsters asked Hispanics to identify their political ideology two years ago, 32 percent said conservative, 43 percent said moderate and 25 percent said liberal. That closely mirrored how independent voters view themselves ideologically (32-50-18), while it is clearly out of line with how Democrats describe their ideology: 10 percent conservative, 43 percent moderate, 46 percent liberal.

Those views provide big inroads for Republicans with that fastest-growing bloc of voters, whose political views are being shaped increasingly by economic standing, Winston said.

Democrats’ lead with Hispanic voters is smaller than in 2018, Post-Ipsos poll finds

In the past four midterm elections that flipped the House majority — 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018 — independents sided with the victorious party by more than 12 percentage points in each contest.

“If history is a good predictor, independents, not the two bases, will determine which party comes out the winner on Nov. 8,” Winston wrote.

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

“Biden is not what’s in their mind when it comes to voting. They’re not thinking about him and trying to punish Democrats or punish Biden because of what’s happening in the country,” Thau said. “They’re looking at the people running for that office and who’s better.”