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They Voted For Trump, And Then Biden. How Do These Swing Voters See Biden Now?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Moderate suburban Republicans are among those who cast ballots for President Biden last year. So eight months in, how do these voters view the president? U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rush of migrants, the Texas border and the delta variant surge have all contributed to Biden's approval ratings hovering around 46%. So what do those voters who swung from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 think?

NPR's Don Gonyea has been sitting in on some focus groups.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The focus groups follow what polls are showing about Biden, that his support has slipped. Among the participants, there are worries about the economy and the size of Democratic spending plans. But it's the withdrawal from Afghanistan that really seems to trouble people, undermining Biden's image as both competent and an expert in foreign policy. There is at least one comparison to the Vietnam War.

PAUL: What happened in Afghanistan to me was the worst thing that's happened since Saigon. I think that was a total mess.

GONYEA: That's Paul. He's in central Pennsylvania. We agreed to identify the focus group participants by first name only.

PAUL: He didn't have to stick the time frame Trump set up. But he kept sticking to it and sticking to it. And a lot of people died. And a lot of people were left behind. So I think that was squarely on him.

GONYEA: One thing we can't know at this point is how long Afghanistan will be a top-tier issue with voters. The participants, all vaccinated, mostly give Biden solid marks for his handling of the coronavirus. All say he's been far better than Trump on that score. Despite being Biden voters, overwhelmingly, they still consider themselves Republicans. But they're disillusioned that their party is still controlled by Trump. None believes the election was stolen. And while they're disappointed in Biden, they rule out voting for Trump if he runs for president again.

Take Christine. She's from the Philadelphia suburbs. She, like others in her focus group, says she first voted for Trump because he was a businessman and not a politician. She hadn't counted on everything else.

CHRISTINE: I felt like we had this monster in office that was bipolar, up and down, irrational, childish. And he just was not good for the United States. And I didn't want to vote for Biden. I'm going to be honest with you. I would have voted for anybody but Trump.

GONYEA: Others in the group blamed Trump for inciting racial tensions and for always, always finding a way to divide people.

And there's this from Mike, who lives in Georgia.

MIKE: I thought that he could come and, as he said, drain the swamp - that he would be able to drain the swamp. I think he made the swamp bigger.

GONYEA: There are frustrations with both the Republican Party in Trump's grasp and with Biden - leave them feeling a little lost politically.

Take focus group member Xaveria, who lives in Georgia. She says that while Afghanistan is the only really bad thing she sees about the Biden presidency so far, at the same time, she doesn't see anything really good that he's done either.

XAVERIA: Kind of like not really trusting what to expect - so I just put him at, like, the average. So he hasn't done anything great and, outside of Afghanistan, nothing, like, awful. But it's like, where do we go?

SARAH LONGWELL: They are very clear that they feel politically unmoored, politically homeless.

GONYEA: That's political strategist Sarah Longwell, who's been hosting these focus groups. She says both parties have an eye on these moderate Republicans.

LONGWELL: I really view these voters as up for grabs in 2022 and 2024.

GONYEA: Longwell, who publishes the political website The Bulwark, says voters like those who flipped from Trump to Biden will continue to have outsized influence in states where margins are close.

LONGWELL: People who are willing to change their vote from one party to another really hold the keys to political power.

GONYEA: But, Longwell says, it matters who the candidates are and how the parties see themselves. If Republicans simply nominate Trump-like figures or if Democrats turn too far left, she says that could decide where these crucial swing voters end up next year and beyond.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CACTUS CHANNEL'S "STAY A WHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.