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What an Undecided Trump-Biden Voter Sounds Like
Here’s what they’re struggling with.
THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Trump-to-Biden voters we focus group monthly for the Swing Voter Project, as well as those we interviewed in May with the Washington Post, do not want either Donald Trump or Joe Biden as their choices in 2024. But if they had to select one of these two unappealing options, most would swallow hard and take four more years of Biden over four more years of Trump.
Then there is a much smaller percentage who’d take Trump back—mainly in hope of an economy better than the current one. And then, beyond them, there is an even tinier minority who truly struggle to make up their minds.
What do these undecideds sound like? And how can they remain in limbo when it comes to two clear, very different, alternatives?
Eric, 43, from Monroe, North Carolina, explained his indecision this way:
I was hoping for some change [with Biden]. There has definitely been change, but I don’t know it was the [kind of] change it would [turn out to] be, quite honestly. I think we’ve seen the economy get far worse . . . and some of our policies I think are weakening regarding other countries.
[In a Trump-Biden rematch], I would have to really dig deep to figure out which one [I’d vote for]. Frankly, I’m one that really looks at the last four years as a resumé, and if it hasn’t gone real well, then I look for change. Frankly, that’s where we’re at for me with Biden, so I’d probably lean towards Trump just because I can’t see four more years, beyond what we have, with Biden. From the economy standpoint, I thought it was a little bit stronger [under Trump] . . .
But I chose Biden because I was looking for a change [from Trump in 2020]. I thought Trump made an embarrassment of the office, to be honest with you, and that was disappointing, too. [The deciding factor] for me is Biden’s performance, which is inclusive of the state of the economy. For me, that really determines it.
Let’s unpack this comment to see what’s really going on.
Eric sounds like many of the swing voters we interview—he operates in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with whoever is president. He lost faith in Trump after voting for him and has now lost faith in Biden. It appears he’s leaning towards Trump in 2024, but wants to keep his options open in case the economy improves. It’s hard to envision, though, what would convince Eric that the economy is performing better in 2024 than it is in mid-2023—or better than it was in 2020 when Trump left office.
Then there’s Carey, 56, from Pittsburgh. When confronted with the choice of Trump and Biden, her response is:
I don’t really want either, so I would want some choices. I would probably go off on my own, [voting for] some other party or I wouldn’t vote. . . . I don’t know. I couldn’t decide between the two. I’d have to hear more. If Trump would stop the [social media] stuff all the time, possibly, [I would vote for him].
Carey is the classic swing voter who struggles making up her mind. She says she wants more information—as if every bit of detail about Biden and Trump wasn’t already at her fingertips, even to the extent of having seen each candidate perform the job of president! And as if more about the candidates would somehow make her decision easier. Our best guess is most voters like Carey will avoid this difficult decision entirely, and just stay home.
THAT’S WHAT SHANEKA, 37 and from Mesa, Arizona says she’d do. “I don’t know if I would vote for either one of them.. . .I wouldn’t vote,” she declared.
When she sees Biden on TV, Shaneka says, “I kind of feel sad when I see him. I feel like maybe it’s too much for him. I don’t know if he’s too old or what, but it’s just too much.” As for Trump, “I think he just needs to grow up, get off of social media. It’s just too much, too much. Very sloppy person.”
For Shaneka it sounds like it’s a race to the bottom between pity for Biden (who is too old at 80) and contempt for Trump (who needs to grow up, even though he’s 77 years old).
But not everyone who says they want to stay home holds to it. This was Leslie, 57 and from Phoenix, who seemed like she would not vote, but then backtracked:
I’m not voting at all. I will sit out the election, [definitely]. I’d like time to waddle on that. I like to have my voice heard. I don’t like it to be not heard, although I’m just one of many. Does my voice really get heard? I know I’m waffling here back and forth, but I’m trying to see, if I’m being pushed and prodded. I will stick with what I originally said: I will vote for Trump. In the end, I probably cannot see myself not voting. I know I would go out there and vote, and I would make that choice. While I may not be comfortable with the choice, I would make the choice. . . . One can only hope maybe that he’s learned a few lessons. Maybe we can find some humility in him. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I still want to see somebody who can shake it up. While he shook things up in all the wrong ways, I still think he can maybe try again, or at least I’d like to see him try again.
Leslie clearly is self-contradictory. First, she’s definitely not voting, then she does a 180 when she realizes what she’s relinquishing by staying on the sidelines. But having decided to vote for Trump, she confronts the implications of casting her vote for someone she knows has major shortcomings. In the end, she embraces a fantasy (“Maybe he’s learned a few lessons”)—hoping Trump 2024 would show more humility than Trump 2020. And with this rationalization in place, she grudgingly returns to him.
At least in theory.
SO, AMONG THE UNDECIDEDS, we’ve seen pro-Trump, stay-home, and quasi-stay home (but ultimately pro-Trump). What’s left came from Bryan, 37, from Scottsdale, Arizona, who told us, “I’m interested to see other candidates. I’m open to other Democrat candidates, even a third-party candidate. [In a Trump-Biden rematch, I would pick a third-party candidate because] it’s World War III if Biden continues.”
Bryan went on to say, “Trump didn’t do what he said he was going to do, and I think Biden didn’t do what he said he was going to do either. So how can you trust both of these people if they didn’t do what they said that they were going to do in the first place?”
It’s worth keeping in mind that usually true undecided voters might stay home, or go third party—but they rarely break for the incumbent. Which is what we saw in our groups.
One can almost empathize with these conflicted swing voters. The oddity is that Trump and Biden are vastly different politicians with the most proven of records: No living American has ever been presented with a choice between a sitting president and a former president. To be undecided between Trump and Biden is like not being able to choose between lobster thermidor or chocolate ice cream.
It’s enough to make you wonder if these undecideds are truly paying attention—or maybe just seeing what they want to see.
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