Sep 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Focus groups: Biden's North Carolina bounceback

Illustration of a trampoline in the shape of North Carolina.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some North Carolina swing voters who'd lost faith in President Biden are expressing a renewed affinity for his leadership, according to our latest Engagious/Schlesinger focus groups.

Why it matters: If that trend holds, it could benefit Democrats in the November midterms.

The big picture: Democrats' passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, big drops in gas prices after spikes earlier this year, and the cooling of inflation (before this week's unexpected hot reading) are giving Biden what amounts to a second chance.

  • In speeches, social media messaging and campaign ads, Biden and his party have emphasized the bill's provisions that increase taxes on large corporations, lower prescription drug costs and tackle climate change — insisting it will lower inflation and the deficit.
  • The landmark legislation was passed just weeks before the president delivered on something else his base voters have been waiting for: canceling student loan debt.

Driving the news: Seven of 11 North Carolinians who participated in two online focus groups conducted by Engagious/Schlesinger said they're feeling better about the way things are going after these developments.

  • Two of the others said where they live, prices are still high and they haven't yet felt real relief.
  • All 11 said they don't regret voting for Biden. None said they would support former President Trump in a theoretical 2024 rematch.

How it works: The groups were comprised of eight independents, two registered Democrats and one registered Republican, all of whom supported Trump in 2016 and switched to Biden in 2020.

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

What they're saying: Jennifer L. said she got "nervous for a little bit" during Biden's presidency because "he wasn't really accomplishing the things he was setting out to accomplish." Now, thanks to readily available COVID tests and lower unemployment, she thinks "things are turning up and looking better than they did."

  • "We are seeing some relief in gas prices. I feel like [Biden] understands more of what's happening and how it is impacting the people he represents," said Marie B.
  • Kayla L. mentioned student debt relief and agreed that lower gas prices are personally helpful because her husband drives 45 minutes to work each way. "We're starting to see what he promised us, at least a little bit," she said.
  • Rachid O., who said he drives a lot for work, thinks the president "is more engaged than before."
  • Theo G. cited Biden's success in cutting a deal on the Inflation Reduction Act with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as one of the president's key strengths. "It seems that he's able to bring people ... together and then make some changes."

Between the lines: The Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade and Trump's re-emergence in daily headlines turned several of the participants away from the GOP.

  • That's helped reposition Biden in their eyes as an alternative to a power structure they actively don't want, rather than a status quo leader who didn't live up to their early hopes.
  • Some participants said they'd vote for Democrat Cheri Beasley over Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) in the state's U.S. Senate race — simply because Trump has endorsed Budd. "I would probably be more inclined not to vote for them. That would kind of raise my suspicions on that candidate," said Stephanie M.

The bottom line: "Among the hardest things to do in politics is win back supporters who’ve lost confidence in you, but for the first time in Biden’s presidency, we’re hearing the sounds of a nascent rebound," said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, who moderated the focus groups. 

But, but, but: Biden's approval rating remains underwater in North Carolina. And some of the participants said they're still feeling the effects of inflation in their counties.

  • If economic conditions grow worse before November, that could translate to votes for Republicans.
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