Jan 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Focus group: Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy

Photo illustration of Joseph Biden looking worried with a downwards trending line and stars

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Pool/Getty Images 

As President Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency, some swing voters say his handling of the pandemic has weakened him in their eyes.

  • But they see him projecting strength when he talks about protecting American democracy.

Driving the news: These were key takeaways from the latest Engagious/Schlesinger swing-voter focus groups for Axios, conducted Tuesday, just days after the president's Jan. 6 anniversary speech.

Why it matters: Voters like them could be crucial to the outcome of the 2022 midterms, and their views of the president may color their enthusiasm for Democrats trying to retain control of the House and Senate.

  • The earlier and further Biden's approval ratings fall with voters, the more leverage he loses with lawmakers in both parties.

How it works: The two panels were comprised of 13 voters who live in battleground states and cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020.

  • While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, the responses show how some voters in crucial states are thinking and talking about current events.

Details: Nine of the 13 said COVID-19 is the issue that concerns them most, but only four of the 13 said Biden is doing a “good or excellent” job handling the pandemic.

  • Only seven of the 13 said Biden's strategy to increase testing and get more people vaccinated is effective. All 13 said they agree with those who say the administration should adopt a new strategy of living with the virus indefinitely, instead of trying to eradicate it.
  • But 10 of the 13 voters, after watching a clip from Biden's Jan. 6 speech assailing an assault on democracy, said the president projected strength through his comments.

What they're saying: “He was stronger than I had perceived him to be," after watching his speech, said Christine M., 55, from Deer Park, Texas. Biden "let us know that we can move forward as a country and we can keep going and we can get over this."

  • Jerry M., 53, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, said Biden addressed the behavior of last year's rioters "with a little more force" than most of his public remarks. "Little less of ‘Sleepy Joe,’ and much more leadership.”

Between the lines: Many of the participants were sympathetic to Biden's efforts with the economy but frustrated with the outcome.

  • Only one of the 13 said they believed his support for government spending was making inflation worse, but eight of 13 said they were nonetheless very concerned about inflation.
  • Eleven out of 13 said they buy the president's argument that a reason why prices are high is because a handful of large companies dominates the market.
  • He said that gives them "free rein to raise prices, reduce options for consumers or exploit workers."

But, but, but: Disappointment in Biden hasn't been broadly translating to wanting former President Trump back.

  • Of 48 participants in the past four months of groups, only four said they'd take him back in a hypothetical rematch.

The bottom line: “Among Trump-to-Biden voters, there’s virtually no ‘buyer’s remorse,’ but there’s minimal ‘buyer’s enthusiasm’” for Biden, said Rich Thau, president of Engagious. He moderated the focus groups.

  • “Comparing Biden to Trump is like comparing a fifth-place team to a sixth-place team; neither is popular with swing voters, but one narrowly edges out the other.”
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