When American swing voters broke up with Donald Trump, they expected better from their new partner, Joe Biden. Leaving behind a particularly divisive relationship, these pivotal voters were eager for a fresh start and expected a healthier connection. Sadly, life—and politics—are rarely that simple.
With the Swing Voter Project, Engagious holds monthly focus groups with Trump to Biden swing voters in key swing states. This qualitative research allows us to understand not just how these individuals vote, but why they vote the way they do.
Near the beginning of each focus group, we pose the following question to participants: “What emotion do you feel when you see President Biden on your television or device?”
It’s a relatively simple question, but one that provides key insights nonetheless — especially when one has the luxury of interpreting participants’ responses over the course of two-and–a-half years.
So what have we learned from a quarterly time-lapse view of these replies?
Early on, swing voters tended to approve of Biden, having recently voted for him. In the spring of 2021, participants overwhelmingly described feeling positive emotions. The most common adjectives they used were “relieved,” “hopeful,” and “calm.” Many participants expressed optimism about the direction of the country under the leadership of President Biden. Other phrases included “peace-of-mind,” “relaxed,” and “renewed pride.”
Using a weighted average of various polls, FiveThirtyEight has tracked Biden’s approval ratings since his inauguration. During this time, in the spring of 2021, Biden’s approval ratings sat comfortably around 53%, 13 to 14 points higher than his disapproval ratings.
In retrospect, this was only a honeymoon phase.
By late summer/fall of 2021, focus group participants already seemed to signal a nationwide shift in perspective. These individuals now shared feelings of “uncertainty,” “concern,” and “skepticality” with regard to Biden. Two main factors likely played a role in this shift.
First, some swing voters expressed frustration with Biden’s handling of the Covid-19 Delta variant. Seven out of 13 participants in an August 2021 focus group felt that the variant affected their day-to-day lives, and two out of the group said that the situation made them view Biden more negatively. One of those participants felt it was unfair to force the vaccine on the masses. In this same session, four of the 13 participants cited Covid-19 as their top concern. In early September, Biden would go on to greatly expand vaccine mandates, which likely divided swing voters with differing views on the vaccine.
The other factor was Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. All 10 September 2021 focus group participants reported feeling “glad the U.S. left Afghanistan, but dissatisfied with how the withdrawal took place” when presented with a number of choices. Many of these swing voters felt that the decision was disorganized and could have been handled differently.
By early September of 2021, Biden’s approval ratings dipped below his disapproval ratings for the first time during his presidency (according to FiveThirtyEight). This is historically significant—only two other presidents ever faced higher disapproval ratings this early in their terms: Gerald Ford (-9.1 points) and Donald Trump (-18.2 points). In our mid-August 2021 sessions, the cracks started to show. We heard a mix of emotions about Biden: five positive, four negative, and four neutral. Among these adjectives were some new ones: “concern,” “anger,” and “frustration.”
Fast-forward to the spring of 2022, and focus-group participants remained pessimistic. “Disappointed,” “bored,” and “worried” were now the most popular emotions among swing-voters in May of that year. These emotions hadn’t come up before.
By late July of 2022, Biden’s approval ratings fell to an all-time low. He sported just a 36% approval rating, as opposed to a 57.7% disapproval rating. For reference, Trump’s lowest approval rating while in office was 36.5%, according to the same FiveThirtyEight polls.
That’s the result of a lot of negative emotions. Within this negativity, however, there are subtle changes.
Initially, participants reported frustration with Biden mainly because of pandemic worries, increased concerns surrounding inflation and the economy, and simply because he was “not doing any better than Trump.” Many of the stated emotions reflect this fact: “frustrated,” “skeptical,” “dissatisfied,” and even “disinterested.”
But after the summer of 2021, we started to hear distinctly different emotions. For example, we didn’t hear the word “pity” used to describe Biden until November of 2022, but once we did, we heard it repeatedly. We began to see more adjectives like “sadness,” “bored,” and “anxious.” One participant even reported “prepared to laugh at a blooper” as his main emotion. In February 2022, one individual reported feeling “disillusioned.” By May of 2023, the most positive sentiment we heard the entire night was “cautious optimism.”
Where did these negative emotions come from? It appears that swing voters’ worries have shifted from concrete disagreements with Biden’s policies to a genuine concern about his age. And it’s no secret that the President has had his fair share of gaffes.
In March 2021, Biden tripped three times while boarding Air Force One. In July of 2022, he read teleprompter instructions aloud during a speech at the White House. He mistakenly remarked that he visited all “54” states in an October speech. And most recently, the President tripped over a sandbag onstage after speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. While his actions do not necessarily instill a great deal of confidence, doctors have assured on multiple occasions that President Biden is healthy and “fit for duty.” Whether voters believe that is a different story.
These feelings are reflected in Biden’s approval ratings. Since falling to a low, they have consistently remained below 43%, about 10 points lower than his disapproval ratings.
Many of the positive adjectives we heard early on have fallen out of favor. “Relief” was one of the most common emotions we heard during the spring/summer of 2021. We haven’t heard it since. “Hope” last came up in May of 2022. Nobody has reported that Biden makes them feel “calm” in over a year-and-a-half. Biden’s age and mental capacity seem to have quelled much of the country’s confidence in him. A recent focus group participant said, “Biden’s dementia is getting pretty bad.”
But the news is not all bad for Biden. Despite their harsh views regarding his presidency, almost none of the participants would consider taking Trump back. In fact, only three of the 22 combined participants in our May and June 2023 focus groups—nearly none of whom reported a positive emotion with regard to Biden—want Trump back. A couple of individuals referred to the former president as a “loose cannon.” Others, when confronted with the same question, jokingly pleaded for a third option. This is rather notable, considering that as we grow closer to the 2024 election, it appears more and more likely that a Biden-Trump rematch is in store.
In the end, swing voters’ relationships with Biden have grown stale. Luckily for him, the pool of eligible bachelors is not much better. Swing voters, while picky, may have to settle.
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, conducted in partnership with Sago. Jonny Flieder is a student at Haverford College and an intern at Engagious.