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What issues motivate voters who support neither Biden nor Trump?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Many Americans say they don't want to vote for either President Biden or former President Trump this year. These so-called double disapprovers will likely sway the race. So NPR correspondents Mara Liasson and Susan Davis wanted to know a little bit more about these voters and what, if anything, will help them decide who they'll vote for. To find out, NPR partnered with focus group expert Rich Thau of the public opinion research firm Engagious, and Sago, a market research firm.

Thau talked to 12 voters in two groups. Every one of them had switched their votes from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020, and they mostly reside in the swing states where that matters, the states that will determine the election. The focus groups took place at the end of May, and it's important to note that was before the verdict in Trump's hush money trial. You might think that outcome might have made a big difference in how people felt, but honestly, it didn't. Only one person said they would change their vote based on the outcome of the trial.

Mara Liasson and Susan Davis join me now in the studio to talk about what they found. It's like a reunion here. Hey. Thanks for coming.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Great to see you.

DETROW: Nice to talk to you. So, Sue, let's start with you. Can you tell us more about these voters and why you wanted to hear from them directly?

DAVIS: Sure. I mean, you most commonly hear these people referred to as double haters, although that's not quite accurate. It's probably more accurate to call them double disapprovers.

DETROW: But it's fun to say haters.

DAVIS: It is fun to say haters. It's easier. It's clearer. And according to our own polling, the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, they make up about 14% of the electorate in this election. And in that survey, it shows them nearly evenly divided between the two candidates, Biden and Trump. The last time the double hater or double disapprover voting percentage was this high was back in the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and they broke pretty decisively towards Trump then. It was a much smaller slice in 2020, only about 3%, but it's been driven way back up, largely driven by President Biden's approval ratings going down.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: And one thing to remember here, Scott, this is not an exact science. This is what we would call anecdata (ph). Polls use scientific methods to tell us how many voters feel this way, but a focus group gets at why they do, and that is what we wanted to hear more about.

DETROW: Right. So, Mara, though, what exactly - how can we quantify the negativity toward both Biden and Trump for these two voters?

LIASSON: I think we can quantify it as very high. All 12 of them said that they'd replace both of these candidates on the ballot if they could. For most of these voters, the choice seems to be between the guy they think is too old and the guy they think is too dangerous. There is a difference, however, in the way that these voters describe each candidate. Rich Thau did some word association exercises, and when it came to Biden, people said, we're more ambivalent. One of them said, I feel sorry for him. Somebody said, not a fan. Somebody else said, well, he's trying.

But for Trump, the adjectives were much harsher. Somebody said they'd vote for a brick rather than him. They said Trump only looks out for himself and his rich friends. So that suggests that Biden has a little bit more potential. The red flags are clearly bigger for Biden. He's the incumbent. So far, this is a referendum on the incumbent election. He wants to turn it into a choice. He always says, don't compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative. But it shows that he still has an opportunity to bring some of these people back. They're not as angry about him as they are about Trump.

DETROW: OK. So, Sue, I feel like this is this clear theme that we've heard is voters saying, I wish there were other choices. I feel like even when you talk to voters, they say, well, if these are the two choices, both of these men at this point are the parties' presumptive nominees. Unless something wildly off the charts happens between now and November, these are the choices Americans have. So given that, which way are people like this leaning?

DAVIS: If the election was today, Biden has a clear advantage. Seven of the 12 said they would vote for Joe Biden today. But the real risk here is third parties. When these same voters were given the options of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein, the support for Biden dropped down to 5 of the 12. And that would suggest that third parties or other options on the ballot are a bigger risk to the incumbent president.

It's also interesting, Scott, because when these voters were asked who they thought would win - not who they want to win, but if they had to place a bet on who would win - they were much more decisive. Eight of the 12 said they believe Donald Trump was going to win this election, and I think that highlights how even among likely Biden voters - people say they will vote for him - they still have very low confidence he can win.

DETROW: So, Mara, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are very different candidates. I think that's pretty clear, but they are also offering very different visions for this country. If voters are not satisfied with the people themselves, how do they feel about what they're campaigning on?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question because they have no idea what Biden's vision is for a second term. Of the 12 people, only one person could cite one thing that Biden had pledged to do in a second term. They do know what Trump has pledged to do. People said, well, he said he's going to be a dictator on day 1, or he's going to have no qualms about using the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies or, you know, deport millions of illegal immigrants. So they're really drawing a blank when it comes to what Biden has pledged to do.

And what we think we know from covering politics for years and years is that the guy with a more positive vision of the future is supposed to be the one with an advantage. And right now, President Biden has really failed to communicate that to voters. Here's what some of our focus group participants said about what Trump wants to do in a second term.

RICH THAU: OK, Juanita (ph), what has he pledged to do?

JUANITA: Take America back. Fix our economy, create more jobs.

THAU: Kimberly (ph)?

KIMBERLY: Cut off aid to Ukraine. But also, he did just say that he was considering legislation to control birth control.

THAU: Brian (ph).

BRIAN: Repeal the ACA and privatize Social Security.

THAU: Bob (ph)?

BOB: Lower corporate taxes even more.

THAU: What was yours, Jennifer (ph)?

JENNIFER: I think he's still wanting to fix the immigration issues. So he's saying, you know, maybe he's not so much about the wall, but he's going to fix the immigration issues.

LIASSON: Now, some of those were negatives for these people...

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Obviously. Yeah.

DETROW: This is really interesting because the first Biden term has been full of concrete policy, and Trump is by and large running on this idea of retribution and revenge. He's not out there giving white papers about what he wants to do if he returns to the Oval Office, but the flip side seems to be what voters are hearing.

LIASSON: That's right. And one of the things that is going to characterize this election is negative partisanship. Because both of these guys are unpopular, they're going to be relying on convincing people that they need to go into the voting booth to stop someone from being president, not necessarily because they're thrilled about the candidate they're voting for. So you're going to hear a lot of messages about all the horrible things that Trump wants to do from the Biden campaign and vice versa.

DETROW: So this is interesting. On one hand, voters seem to really dislike Donald Trump. On the other hand, they seem to be ambivalent or disappointed or not having much of an impression at all at Joe Biden, and yet Joe Biden is here viewed as the weaker of the two candidates. Mara, how does a candidate change that between now and November?

LIASSON: Well, I think you're going to see Biden trying - he already has been trying - to turn this election from a referendum on the incumbent, which is what reelection campaigns are usually about, into a choice. He wants it to be a choice between him and Donald Trump. He wants to remind people of all the things they didn't like about Trump. And the reason why I think this focus group and our polling shows that he has more of an uphill climb than Trump is because it's almost June. He spent tens of millions of dollars trying to do this, and so far, he has not been able to change enough people's minds.

Yes, there's still five months left, and the Biden campaign constantly says people still haven't tuned in. They're really not focused on Donald Trump. But at some point, if he's going to change this election from a referendum on the incumbent, him - and he's a historically unpopular incumbent - to a choice between two unpopular people, he doesn't have a whole lot of time left.

DETROW: Mara Liasson, Susan Davis, thanks a lot.

DAVIS: Thanks, Scott.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Susan Davis
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.