Come November, half of America will be delighted by the election results, and half will be dismayed.
But unless the Electoral College ends in a tie, no one should be surprised by the outcome. That s because this election is likely to be close, and it s fully plausible either candidate could win.Pollsters are consistently telling us Democratic nominee Joe Biden is far ahead. I m not looking to pick a fight, as their sample sizes are much larger than mine. That said, as a focus group moderator, I m hearing strong support for President Donald Trump from a critical sliver of the electorate.
For reference, focus groups are early-detection systems of shifting public opinion. Before something important appears in polling, it often bubbles up first in focus group conversations.
And, each month for the past 17 months, I ve had a unique window into the Americans largely responsible for giving the president his slim Electoral College victory: so-called "Obama-Trump" swing voters across the upper Midwest.
Our Swing Voter Project has uncovered that many of these people, who live in places such as Canton, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Macomb County, Michigan, prefer Trump over Biden. In fact, 22 of 33 respondents in these four most recent locations feel this way.
And over the first year of the project, from March 2019 through February 2020, more than two-thirds of the "Obama-Trump" voters said they would take Trump over Obama in a hypothetical match-up.
While most are still in Trump s camp, they cannot be counted on to support the incumbent. After all, they made a big leap between 2012 and 2016, and could do so again in 2020. Additionally, many of these voters have yet to hear Biden make his case, and some may still be impacted by the economic and health consequences of the pandemic.Beyond the numbers, though, it s critical to understand why so many of them continue to support Trump.
They think a businessman is best suited to turn the country around economically. They feel Covid-19 was not Trump s fault, and he s doing the best he can to contain it. They conflate the Black Lives Matter protesters with the rioters attacking federal buildings and retail shops. They don t want historic monuments torn down. And they dismiss defunding the police as ridiculous.
These voters tell me they want America finally to be put first; they oppose immigration and trade policies they say give benefits to foreigners at their expense. And they want a non-politician who relentlessly fights back, after witnessing too many office holders fold in the face of special interests.
These voters may sound like typical Fox News watchers, but, significantly, the overwhelming majority are not. Many are, instead, people who get their news disproportionately from local television, regional websites and Facebook. Compared to the kinds of people who seek out news from national cable channels, many swing voters reside in a national politics desert.
In short, while America s political media generate a pipeline s worth of information daily, these swing voters consume merely a trickle.Consider this: Over the past several months, most of my "Obama-Trump" voters couldn t name a single thing Biden had said or done regarding the pandemic. In bellwether Macomb County, on July 21, none of the nine voters I interviewed could name a single thing Biden had achieved in nearly 50 years in national politics.
Worse for the former vice president, several told me Biden would be a "puppet" of others if he were elected. That s because many are convinced he has "dementia," and they mocked him after seeing videos of his misstatements online.
That said, these voters are under no illusions about Trump s shortcomings. They hate the tweeting, but some tolerate it as the price for hiring the relentless fighter they want. As one woman in Edina, Minnesota, told me, Trump makes her feel "confident, but sometimes a little cringe-worthy."
In January 2016, I made a bet with a client that Trump would be the GOP nominee, when no one had yet voted. My client thought I was crazy, and even remarked, "Just to be clear, you get Trump, and I get the 16 other candidates?" After Trump won the nomination, my client thought I was a genius. I m far from it, but I m a pretty good listener.
What I heard was a certain candidate for president sounding exactly like the center-right focus group respondents I d been interviewing for nearly 15 years. They and Trump shared the same grievances about America s decline and expressed them in a similarly simple and straight forward way. No other politician came close in terms of expressing what these people truly felt.
This year, Trump will not be able to vilify Biden. These swing voters do not dislike Biden the way they still dislike Hillary Clinton. And, so, Trump is taking a different approach, casting doubt on Biden by focusing on questions of his mental acuity and verbal mistakes. And he will likely get far by alleging Biden s lifetime in politics has not having yielded a single, career-defining achievement.Knowing this, how might Biden respond? For one, he shouldn t expect former President Barack Obama to be much help with these "Obama-Trump" voters. It says a lot about a voter if he or she migrated from Obama to Trump; many were eager to part ways with a president of whom they grew tired.
Biden s challenge, then, is to win over people whose lives don t revolve around breaking political news. Come Election Day, these swing voters decisions will hinge on whether they re better off than they were four years ago.
For now, most have told me they are, even while acknowledging the country is worse off. Yet, if they see their personal circumstances darken and feel the weight of the economic downfall, the president s election chances may grow slimmer, too.
For those of us who follow politics closely, my admonition is: Pay a lot of attention to those voters who don t pay much attention at all. They may be telling us something very important.