Mar 3, 2022 - World

Swing voters believe Putin's "gone off the deep end"

Cutout color images of Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden's faces are held by anti-war protesters in Berlin

Demonstrators hold signs of Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Some swing voters say President Biden is taking the right stance by ratcheting up sanctions on Russia and keeping U.S. troops off the table — but some aren't sure Russian President Vladimir Putin would have invaded Ukraine at all if Donald Trump were still in office.

Driving the news: These were among the key takeaways from our latest Axios Engagious/Schlesinger swing voter focus groups, held Wednesday.

  • The two panels were comprised of 13 men and women who voted for Trump in 2016, then Biden in 2020, and who live in the most competitive 2020 swing states.
  • 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.

Why it matters: Former President Trump and some other Republicans have speculated either that Russia's president felt emboldened to invade Ukraine because he saw Biden as weak, or that Putin wouldn't have invaded if Trump were still in office.

  • While Putin's true mindset is unknowable, if U.S. voters buy into such speculation, Biden's standing could erode — weakening Democrats' position in the midterm elections.
  • The focus group participants were divided. Several thought Putin probably would have invaded Ukraine regardless of who the U.S. president is, but some were unsure.
  • “I think there’s some level of unpredictability that Trump brings to the table that would be a deterrent,” said Paul A., 35, from Livonia, Michigan.

The intrigue: All of the voters were able to identify a photo of Putin — no big surprise.

  • But 12 of the 13 also were able to identify Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — an unexpectedly high share.
  • It may reflect Zelensky's folk-hero status and mastery of social media, as much as Americans' concern about the conflict.

The big picture: All 13 voters said they were aware of the Russian invasion. Just nine said they've formed an opinion about U.S. involvement. Six of those nine held a positive view of Biden's efforts so far.

Specifically, voters said, imposing sanctions was the right decision.

  • “Hopefully that will start to turn the tide in Russia inside out, so that we won't have to send troops,” said Mike L., 51, from Wayzata, Minnesota.
  • “I feel like the escalating sanctions were appropriate,” said Brian P., 43, from Lewisville, Texas. “I’m also in favor of support of the NATO allies, assisting them but not putting forces into Ukraine.”
  • Lebene K., 43, from Euless, Texas, held a more negative view. Biden "is allowing it to still go on. This shouldn’t be going on, and we have the ability as a nation to stop it,” she said.

Details: Given the option to label Russia as an ally, competitor or threat to the United States, two said competitor — while 11 said threat.

  • “There’s a lot of very good Russian hackers. I grew up in the Cold War. I saw 'Rocky [IV].' I know they’re a threat,” said Shawn D., 52, from Philadelphia.
  • “Putin is such a loose cannon. The nuclear threat is always a threat,” said Erik W., 51, from Feasterville, Pennsylvania.

Between the lines: Seven people said that their impression of Putin had changed in the last week for the worse. Asked by the moderator whether they believe that Putin has “gone off the deep end,” 11 of the 13 said yes.

  • Eli S., 63, from Winter Park, Florida, said Putin wants to be remembered as a trio along with Lenin and Stalin.
  • On the other hand, participants had a favorable impression of Zelensky, labeling him with words like “heroic” and “brave.”
  • "Putin’s been in power this whole century, but with last week’s invasion he transformed swing voters’ opinions about him overnight,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, who moderated the focus groups.

Go deeper: Last month, U.S. swing voters said they wanted the United States to stay militarily out of the conflict in Ukraine.

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