If it’s Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden again, which way will swing voters swing? And how will they swing if, instead, Ron DeSantis or Kamala Harris (or both) are their party’s respective nominees? In conducting focus groups on May 17 with 15 Trump-to-Biden swing voters from the key states of Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, we sought their views on the candidates and how they would weigh a 2020 rematch or other potential matchups in 2024. To level-set, all 15 swing voters —eight independents, four Democrats, and three Republicans— indicated they wish neither Trump nor Biden were running in 2024, and that both parties would select a different nominee.
They cited the candidates’ ages, inability to keep their campaign promises, and a desire for new “ideas” and “fresh faces.” The emotions they feel most strongly when they see Biden on a TV or device include “panicked,” “worried,” “down,” and “confused.” Nine can name a specific action Biden has taken they disagree with, including spending too much money, mishandling our southern border, not being tough enough on China, allowing for a chaotic pullout in Afghanistan, and pushing for student loan forgiveness. For many, knowing their choice in 2024 will likely be Trump vs.
Biden again makes them feel “disappointed” and “ashamed” as Americans. Despite their negative feelings about this choice, their preference in a rematch is clear: nine would choose Biden, and three would choose Trump, while one would vote for a third-party candidate, one wouldn’t vote at all, and one is undecided (and indicated she’s open to choosing any of these four options). Respondents who would support Biden in a rematch with Trump explained: “I know if Trump comes back, instead of doing policies like he says he wants to do, he wants to go after what he considers his political enemies and go on social media and get revenge.
That’s not a healthy environment for this country,” remarked Pavel, 44, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Trump is just so divisive,” commented Lisa, 57, from Mequon, Wisconsin. “He rips people apart and tears the country apart. He’s not a leader. He’s proven that.” Jelee, 28, from Warner Robins, Georgia, added, “I think all politics to the side, Trump has enough going on in his personal life, and I wouldn’t necessarily put a president in place that has his own legal issues that we’re questioning, ‘What is he doing?’” Respondents who would support Trump commented: “I think [Trump] keeps his word on the promises that he [makes]…He’s more focused on the problems inside America than what is outside America,” explained Sooraj, 32, from Duluth, Georgia. Leslie, 57, from Phoenix, Arizona, said, “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. 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.” These swing voters also opined on Vice President Harris and Governor DeSantis.
The first words that come to mind when they think about Harris include “distinguished,” “calm,” “weak,” “ineffective,” “scatter-brained,” and “scarce” (i.e., never around). They described DeSantis as “professional,” “bold,” a “bully,” “snide,” “tightly wound,” and a “mini-Trump.” Having gained a better understanding of how they view Harris and DeSantis, we presented three alternative matchups for 2024 and gathered feedback. In one scenario, if DeSantis were to become the Republican nominee and challenge Biden, he would win over only three swing voters (including one who would vote for a third-party candidate in a Trump vs.
Biden matchup). That respondent commented that DeSantis is younger and can better deal with the “serious stressors” that come with the job. He added that he believed DeSantis is “professional” and handled the pandemic well in Florida. In this same scenario, 11 swing voters would stick with Biden (including one who would vote for Trump over Biden, citing her concerns about some of the policies DeSantis has implemented in Florida).
One respondent was undecided. In a second scenario, if Trump were the Republican nominee and Harris were the Democratic nominee, he would win four swing voters. This includes one respondent who would prefer Biden over Trump, but has issues with Harris. This respondent was satisfied with how Trump handled inflation, but she believes Biden has a “better reputation” in handling himself.
At this point, she lacks confidence in Harris. Nine swing voters would vote for Harris in this potential matchup. Two would vote for a third-party candidate: one would similarly vote for a third-party candidate in a Trump vs. Biden matchup, and the other would choose Biden over Trump. The latter respondent doesn’t see Harris as a “real leader,” adding that he doesn’t see enough of her and doesn’t think we can trust her. In the final scenario, if DeSantis were the Republican nominee and Harris the Democratic nominee, Harris would win over nine swing voters, while DeSantis would win over five, including all three who would choose Trump in a Trump vs.
Biden rematch, one who would choose Biden over Trump, and one who would vote for a third-party candidate. One swing voter remained undecided. The respondent who would vote for Biden over Trump, but would choose DeSantis over Harris, told us DeSantis “would command more respect on the world stage” with China, Russia, and North Korea; he was skeptical that Harris would be “taken seriously” by the world’s dictators.
Other reasons some would support DeSantis included their desire to “try new blood” and a belief that he’s more likely to keep us out of wars. Those who would vote for Harris were concerned about DeSantis’s “boldness,” “inexperience,” and divisiveness, adding again that he’s a “mini-Trump.” It seems at this point, irrespective of whether Trump or DeSantis is the Republican nominee, or Biden or Harris is the Democratic nominee, that Democrats hold a narrow edge among swing voters.
Of course, circumstances could easily force that to change. While all signs indicate that Harris will not seek out the nomination and Biden top the ticket, swing voters’ lukewarm feelings about Biden—even those in favor of him over Republican contenders—forecast another nail-biter presidential election in 2024. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 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 and the Persuadables Project, both conducted in partnership with Sago. Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.