Chaotic Afghanistan Withdrawal Erodes Swing Voter Goodwill for Biden

Photo by Gage Skidmore | Unsplash


Photo by Gage Skidmore | Unsplash

The perception that President Biden mishandled the Afghanistan withdrawal undermined swing voters’ confidence in him, but it didn’t trigger a full abandonment of support. This was a key takeaway from the online focus groups we conducted on September 14.


In September’s edition of our monthly Swing Voter Project, we spoke with 10 “Trump-to-Biden” voters across the most competitive states in the 2020 election. The respondents consisted of six Democrats, two Republicans, and two independents.


Of the 10 respondents, nine had heard about the Afghanistan withdrawal. When asked what one word described how it made the respondents feel, the answers were profoundly negative: one reported ambivalence, while the rest felt “shocked,” “devastated,” “despondent,” “sad,” “frustrated,” and “dissatisfied.”


We then posed the following question: Which statement comes closest to how you feel personally?

  1. I’m glad the U.S. left Afghanistan, and am satisfied with how the withdrawal took place.

  2. I’m glad the U.S. left Afghanistan, but am dissatisfied with how the withdrawal took place.

  3. I’m not glad the U.S. left Afghanistan, but am satisfied with how the withdrawal took place.

  4. I’m not glad the U.S. left Afghanistan, and am dissatisfied with how the withdrawal took place.


All nine of those who were aware of the Afghanistan withdrawal chose Option 2.


Seven respondents thought that the chaos that characterized the withdrawal was not inevitable.


“I was very disappointed, considering [Biden] did…a good job under President Obama, as far as his foreign policy. One of his strengths in running [for President] was his foreign policies and experience,” said Gerard, 50, from Wayne County, Michigan.


Jennifer, 52, from Douglas County, GA, added: “You expect some chaos, but what we saw was mayhem. It was unorganized, it was something you could not imagine…not being able to have a strategic plan.”


“It could have been handled well. There might have been a little bit [of disruption], but not to an extent where so many people will get affected,” said Sunil, 43, from Dakota County, MN.


At first blush, the perceived failure of the withdrawal operation puts Biden and Congressional Democrats in a sticky position for the 2022 midterm elections. With the Republican Party eager to reclaim one or both houses of Congress, a crisis such as this is an opportunity to regain support from swing voters. And just as the GOP would hope, the withdrawal eroded five respondents’ confidence in Biden.


“Biden [said] that he would leave nobody behind, and he put the August 31 date on it, and he left [anyway]. [T]oday on the news I heard it was a few thousand citizens, just regular citizens, that he left behind…After having Trump, I just thought Biden was going to be a little different, so it just was a little heartbreaking for me,” said Elisa, 53, from Martin County, FL.


Stephanie, 38, from Wake County, NC, felt the need to start monitoring Biden’s actions more closely following the withdrawal: “Up to this point, a lot of what I was hearing and seeing were…what I knew that he was going to do, and stuff like that. And then this happened, and it was kind of like, ‘Okay, maybe I need to look more at what he’s doing and how, what things are being implemented.’ It makes me question…how he’s handling the foreign affairs.”


“I was thinking that he takes very calculated steps and then moves…with the proper decisions. [What] changed [for] me is that, how can he make that decision [to withdraw] like that, that goes wrong?” wondered Sunil from Minnesota.


If there is a silver lining to be found for Biden and his party, however, it’s that eight of the nine who heard about the withdrawal thought Trump wouldn’t have handled the Afghanistan withdrawal any better.


“[Trump] was too much of a hothead,” said Jennifer from Georgia.


Erik, 42, from Clark County, NV agreed: “There’s always these international blunders that happened [with Trump], and I can only see this as being another one of those.”


Elisa from Florida expressed a further lack of faith in Trump, remarking, “He can’t handle foreign policy, he doesn’t even…understand what foreign policy is.”


Respondents told us that while they are disappointed in how Biden handled Afghanistan, they don’t yet disapprove of how he’s doing his job as president.


None of the 10 respondents regret voting for Biden last November. Further, if Trump were to run against Biden tomorrow, only one would take Trump back.


“I think with [Biden] being vice president prior to, and being president now, that’s been an advantage for our country,” said Carly, 33, from Anoka, MN.


Jennifer agreed: “[Biden] did what he felt needed to be done. Most of us feel like [the withdrawal] needed to be done.”


The bottom line, politically, is that the Afghanistan withdrawal is unlikely to be a lasting issue going into the 2022 midterms. Swing voters told us that as the election approaches, what will matter more to them is the pandemic and the economy.




Rich Thau

Rich is the president of Engagious. His company is the industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy content, moment-to-moment. The firm helps its clients become more successful by applying the power of behavioral science and social psychology to dial test focus groups.


Susie Pieper

Susie Pieper is a student at Haverford College and an intern at Engagious.


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