Swing Voters Loathe the GOP Brand. Does That Matter When They Vote?


For months, two competing thoughts have left me at an impasse. 

On the one hand, “Trump-Biden” voters regularly insist during our monthly Swing Voter Project focus groups that they cast their votes for the best candidate, irrespective of party. At the same time, they say they maintain a remarkably sour view of the Republican brand. 

Can both ideas be true at the same time? Can their negativity towards the GOP brand remain divorced from their voting behavior—particularly when their view of Democrats, while far from stellar, is decidedly less dismal?

To unravel this mystery, let’s start by asking what Trump-Biden voters think is distinctive about the GOP brand.

On May 11, I moderated two focus groups of Trump-Biden voters to ask them how they felt about the current state of the Republican and Democratic parties. I asked what 14 people from the most competitive 2020 swing states thought the core ideals of today’s Republican party were. Their responses included: 

  • The party of Trump

  • Anti-immigration

  • Obstructionism, not willing to work with the other party

  • Self-preservation and power

  • Corporations and big money

  • Stands for the rich and upper class, and not the workers of this country

When asked the same question about the core ideals of today’s Democratic party, their answers included: 

  • Togetherness and trying not to divide the country

  • Supporters of the working class

  • More welcoming to the minority class

  • More patriotic 

  • They stand more for the structure and dignity of politics

  • More leaning towards socialism

  • Ultra-liberal

While focus groups are small samples, these answers are illuminating.

Mark, 62, a Republican-turned-Independent from Sachse, TX, thinks that the GOP has lost sight of its own goals. “It has no platform. It launched with no platform per their leader, Mr. Trump, and they have, in my opinion, alienated a large majority of people who used to support [them].”

Six out of 14 say the Democratic Party is more welcoming to people like them than it was 20 years ago. (That compares to just one of 14 saying the GOP is more welcoming now.) These voters—seven Republicans, three Independents, and four Democrats—said Democrats are “promoting equality among the working and higher classes,” “closing the gaps,” and “evening the playing field.” 

Despite all the negativity about the GOP, 11 out of 14 swing voters admitted they would be willing to vote for a Republican House or Senate candidate in the 2022 mid-term elections. The real problem for the GOP: Only one said she would vote for a Republican candidate who had suggested that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump. 

“I’m sorry, get over it y’all. You lost. If they’re still whining about it into the next election, it’s like, suck it up buttercup,” said Janie, 60, a Republican from Hanover, PA. 

Rosie, 53, a Democrat from Bethel, PA added, “It would definitely tip the scale against them.”

Farrah, a 36-year-old Independent from Olivet, MI, said, “We’re voting on somebody for the future, not talking about what has or has not happened in the past.”

Thomas, 53, a registered Independent from Oviedo, FL, said he doesn’t see himself voting for a Republican at all. “This new Republican governor and the rest of the Republican people here were just followers. There aren’t representing the people the way they should be. They are just following party lines… Right now, I don’t feel that I would be going anywhere near Republicans at this point in time.”

This wasn’t the first time I explored these kinds of reservations. 

In March, I asked two groups of six swing voters each to answer the following question: “Imagine the Republican Party—the totality of the party—was a person, just one person. What characteristics would this person have?” I was not asking them to describe any particular person, but rather to “pretend that the attributes you associate with the Republican Party were encapsulated in one person.” 

The answers were eye-opening, largely because they shed light on how four years of Trump affected perceptions of the party. In one focus group, which contained five Independents and one Democrat, the responses were:

  • Stubborn 

  • Conservative

  • Unreliable 

  • Selfish

  • Greedy

  • Ultra-capitalist

  • Closed-minded

  • Ultra-religious

  • Anti-immigrant

  • Hypocritical

In the second group, which contained three Republicans, two independents, and one Libertarian, the responses were:

  • Fiercely loyal

  • Fiscally conservative

  • Responsible

  • Egotistical

  • More extreme

  • Rudderless

  • Narcissistic

  • Controlling

  • Elitist

  • Fearful 

  • Passionate

  • Inconsistent

  • Divided 

By my count that’s 16 negative traits out of 23; the rest were either neutral or positive. That’s not a great batting average if you’re at all concerned about party branding affecting voter choice. 

I can remember conducting focus groups with moderate voters nearly a decade ago, posing the same question about the GOP, and hearing adjectives such as “old,” “rich,” “white,” and “male” to describe typical Republicans. 

Do the 2021 replies represent progress for the party? My best guess is that they don’t—particularly when compared with Democrats, who Trump-Biden voters described as:

  • Community-minded

  • Humanitarian

  • Open-minded

  • Fun 

  • Caring

  • Globally aware

  • Accepting of other humans

  • Diverse in interests

  • Racially/gender diverse

  • Futuristic

  • Stereotyping

  • Critical of ideas / of things they don’t like

  • Underdogs / Uncomfortable in the majority

  • Empathetic

  • Patronizing

  • Hypocritical

  • Messiah-complex

  • Utopian-driven 

  • Spend a lot / not fiscally conservative

With just eight of these 19 traits clearly negative, and the rest neutral or positive, the Republican challenge is to battle Democrats for brand superiority, while distancing themselves from the image they’ve created for themselves. 

In other words, they need to hope Trump-Biden voters really can separate their feelings about the GOP from their feelings about their candidates.

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