Oct 1, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Focus group: Ohio swing voters unhappy but unmoved by debate

Illustration of a podium with an "I voted" sticker shaped like a speech bubble

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The chaotic first presidential debate didn't do much to change some voters' minds here, with several voters who previously supported President Trump deciding to stick with him, even if they were embarrassed by his debate performance.

Why it matters: Most people's minds were made up before Tuesday's debate. But these voters' feelings show how much the pandemic may be hurting Trump in battleground states.

This was the biggest takeaway from our special post-debate Engagious/Schlesinger focus group with 11 voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016, and who live around the Youngstown, Ohio, area.

  • Four of those 11 plan to vote for Biden, while the rest are sticking with Trump. But those who are switching to Biden mostly made up their minds in the spring when the pandemic took off.
  • Biden leads Trump by about 3 percentage points in Ohio in the RealClearPolitics polling average.
  • One voter said if Trump condemns white supremacist groups more forcefully, she would flip back to him.
  • While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, the responses show how some voters are thinking and talking about the 2020 election in crucial states.

What they're saying: "I have a little more faith in Biden than I do in Trump, honestly, because Trump has shown us evidently we can’t trust him," said April P., who's voting for Biden.

  • "This is ridiculous for this many people to die," said Rocco P., who's also supporting Biden. "Trump has to be involved in everything and that’s part of the problem."
  • "In 2016, the way [Trump] spoke was different. He was more focused on what needed to be done," said Sherry W., who's voting for Biden. "Now, it’s all about conspiracy theories and that is really concerning to me."
  • While watching Trump at the debate, respondents felt a mix of embarrassment and annoyance, including those who plan to vote for him. "I don't think it was very classy the way he handled himself," said Kristen D., who's sticking with Trump anyway.
  • Dartavia P. said she was "irritated that he kept talking over everybody and that he wouldn't answer the questions," but plans to vote to re-elect him.

Between the lines: These voters largely felt that neither Trump nor Biden were speaking directly to them at the debate or addressing the issues they care most about.

  • "It was such a s*** show that I don’t think that anybody had enough time to say anything important because the other would start yelling," said Brenda R.
  • "Neither of them conducted themselves as gentleman, or president and presidential candidate. I was very disappointed in both," said Tracy G., who will support Trump.

Biden's explicit attempts to connect with voters — at times speaking directly into the camera rather than to the moderator, and ignoring Trump — felt too forced to some of these voters.

  • Pat M., a Trump supporter, said that Biden appeared "scripted" and "robotic" in those moments.
  • While watching Biden, some respondents remarked that he appeared to get "frustrated" and "was being brought down to Donald Trump’s level."

The bottom line: These voters indicated there's almost nothing that could change their minds between now and November. "The 15 minutes I watched I didn’t get anything out of it, so I turned it off," said Adam A.

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