“Good enough”: What focus groups say about Joe Biden’s appeal

Donald Trump’s challenger doesn’t evoke strong emotions in voters, but that may play to his advantage. 

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For many Joe Biden supporters this US election, beating Donald Trump has often appeared to matter above all else. The ragtag coalition of liberals, moderates and conservatives backing the Democratic candidate is unusually broad. In August, 62 per cent of Biden’s backers told YouGov their vote was primarily a vote against Trump, rather than for Biden.

That sentiment has waned somewhat since the summer. YouGov posed the question again in October, after the first televised debate, and found a marked shift in the numbers. The share of Biden supporters who said their vote was primarily an anti-Trump vote has dropped to 54 per cent, down 8pts. The share of supporters who said their vote was primarily a pro-Biden one jumped to 44 per cent.

So what have voters noticed and liked? One place to look for clues is in the focus groups, such as that run by pollsters Peter Hart and Nicole McCleskey

“I think [Biden's] an honest and sincere person,” said Alex, a former Trump voter turned Biden backer, during one their sessions. “He’s going to try to do what he can to serve his country.” Gina, a former libertarian, added: “[Biden's] quality of being a human, a person, is something that we’ve been lacking. Anybody but Trump is right for this moment.”

“Anybody but Trump” was, and continues to be, Biden's main driver of support. But while the debates have done little, if anything, to change voting intention, they did bring Biden’s character to the forefront of the campaign – a character for the most part warmly received.

The same cannot be said for Trump. In a focus group for Lord Ashcroft Polls, an unnamed Trump voter, who according to Ashcroft is not typically loyal to the Republican brand, spoke of his dissatisfaction with the president’s performance. “I thought he would elevate himself to the office and [I thought] he actually wanted to do things for the people,” said the voter. “[Instead] it just seems like a circus – and it’s accelerating.” Another backer from 2016 added:  “He has done stuff, but I think he is for the rich; he’s not for the working middle class. I thought he was going to be more for all the people.” 

[See also: Can Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump?]

When it came to Trump’s performance in the debates, voters in a focus group run by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, which included Republicans and those towards the middle of the political spectrum, seemed unenthused. Nicola, from North Carolina, said that, despite her opposition to the “socialism” of Biden and Harris, her “conscience” keeps her from wanting to cast a vote for Trump. “He’s such a nasty person sometimes,” she added. Other members told the session of their discomfort with Trump’s “child-like nature” in the first debate. They did feel reassured by his relatively presidential manner in the second, however, with some even going as far as to say it was enough to keep their vote.

While opinions about Trump are strongly held, those about Biden seem more of an afterthought. In both the Ashcroft and Hart & McCleskey groups, respondents of all affiliations used phrases such as “safe pick” and “middle of the road” to describe the Democratic candidate, although negative descriptions such as  “frail” and “sleepy” were also common. Natalie, a voter in Iowa, said she regarded Biden as a “slightly wacky, slightly uncool uncle”, who, nevertheless, “you can call at midnight if your car has broken down, and he’ll come get you”.

Trump’s camp knows this, which in part explains why it has attempted to link Biden with the more "radically liberal" aspects of the Democratic party. Despite these efforts, at least one in ten Republicans says they like Biden, and one in five does not have much of an opinion. The Democratic candidate is hard to paint as a bogeyman, and in that regard, Biden is no Hillary Clinton.

Early voters are overwhelmingly positive about Joe Biden
YouGov survey of registered voters. Fieldwork: October 18 - 20

A safe, middle of the road candidate might not inspire passion among their core voters, or receive as many column inches as a Trump in the US or a Boris Johnson in the UK. Nonetheless, such perceptions may help to neutralise those candidates and make them more palatable for their opponent's typical supporters. Being perceived as safe and middle of the road can also be handy at a time of crisis.

When asked for a word or phrase that best summarises their thoughts on Biden, two focus groups in separate rooms offered up the same description: “Good enough.” And that might well be good enough for Biden. 

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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