If there’s one sure thing over these last eight years of our weird and getting weirder national political narrative, it’s this: Trust the polls at your peril. Remember President Hillary Clinton? Remember the Red Wave of 2022? Didn’t think so. Every public opinion poll nowadays appears to be, rather than contain, a margin of error.
There was one prominent pundit deviating from the conventional wisdom of a Republican midterm tsunami last year, and that was the Main Line’s Rich Thau, whose monthly Swing Voter Project goes in-depth with individual “persuadable voters” in battleground states, giving him a perspective that is both wider and deeper than mere polling can provide.
If the rise of Trumpism has taught us anything, it ought to be that we need to focus less on predicting our most unpredictable fellow countrymen, and err instead on the side of understanding them. After all, there is a barely grasped realignment afoot: As Democrats have become the party of an elite, college-educated professional class; the Republican party, once the marker of country-clubbers, is making inroads with those who shower after work, including Hispanic and Black voters.
Yet the daily drumbeat of our political coverage barely takes into account such big cultural shifts. Those of us with advanced degrees in urban centers tsk-tsk when we see that Trump and Biden are virtually tied in the horserace polling; news accounts that do little to explore why that is.
People bring their left- or right-leaning partisan lens to the world, but there’s a third category of voter out there, and they really struggle with their presidential decision.
Ever since it became clear that Trump, far from an anomaly, was remaking our politics, Thau decided to understand more about the motivations of his fellow citizens — particularly among one set of voters: those sizable numbers who have gone from Obama to Trump to Biden.
Thau is the 58-year-old founder of Engagious, a public policy messaging firm whose clients include trade associations and advocacy groups. A 1987 Haverford College graduate with a B.A. in history, Thau’s prominent side hustle is the Swing Voter Project, a partnership with Axios and the focus group recruiting firm Sago. He can often be seen on CNN and heard on Sirius XM’s POTUS channel explaining to those of us in our ideological corners just what true swing voters are feeling each month.
Thau’s Zoom-based focus groups consist of roughly 10-14 swing voters, usually an even mix of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Focus groups don’t come with a statistically significant sample like a poll (allegedly) does, but they enable respondents to go deeper. Experienced researchers like Thau are able to get a sense of trends through incisive questioning cutting across party affiliation and demographic boundaries.
Last week’s Swing Voter Project results made headlines, among them that Commonwealth persuadable voters view talk of impeaching Biden as just political retribution and that, while many of those who voted for Biden in 2020 don’t regret their choice, they’re not necessarily in his camp this time around.
I reached out to Thau to go deeper with the nation’s premier election whisperer.
Larry Platt: Take me back to when you started doing these focus groups. You had a regular business to run. What made you start this side hustle?
Rich Thau: After the 2016 election, I looked around and scratched my head. I had a very different reaction than most people. If you remember, the question then was “How did Trump pull this off when no one expected him to win?” I was wondering something different: “Why didn’t we know this in advance?”
The polls didn’t tell us; the media didn’t tell us. Clearly, I thought, polling should be supplemented with some form of face to face interviewing. In 2020, the media did a better job of preparing us for the possibility that either side could win, and it looks like the same will be true in 2024. But we still don’t have a good enough understanding about what’s going on with persuadable voters — and that’s who I’m focused on. How do they look at the world? People bring their left- or right-leaning partisan lens to the world, but there’s a third category of voter out there, and they really struggle with their presidential decision.
Yes, it’s estimated that something like 11 to 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 voted for Obama twice. That’s crazypants. But it seems to me that those voters will have an outsized influence in 2024.
There are lots of constituencies that could make a big difference in a close 2024 election. For example, economic issues are often the driving factor for moderate Republican female voters, but will the Dobbs decision change that? What will African American voter-participation rates in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin look like? But you’re right, as far as I know I’m the only person conducting monthly Trump-to-Biden swing voter focus groups, and I will tell you that the persuadable voters are likely to carry a lot of weight.
So after conducting these focus groups every month for years now, what are your big takeaways?
I think there are three big takeaways. First, I’d describe these people as in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. They’re the political version of serial daters. They fell in and out of love with Obama, and then they fell in and out of love with Trump. And now they’re out of love with Biden. It’s very hard to keep them happy. It’s like they cast their vote and say to themselves, “I hope this person is better than the last person,” and they end up being disappointed.
The second thing I’d say is that a sizable minority of them, if not a slight majority, are motivated by economic issues. The biggest issue to them is the economy and inflation. We also hear about crime, immigration, abortion, climate change, gun safety — they all come up here and there. But the issue that comes up the most is the economy and inflation. Their pocketbook drives their decision making.
I’m endlessly curious about this. How can this be the case? That Casey, who has been in office 17 years, is hardly recognizable to voters?
Well, if that’s the case, that should be good for Biden, no? We have the lowest unemployment ever, inflation is coming down, wages are up.
You’re right, Biden has done some huge things. But if the voter doesn’t feel it yet, it’s like it never happened. Remember how Trump would endlessly sign executive orders? He’d hold them up after signing them? It looked like he was doing stuff. Trump knew how to command the visual part of governing, and Biden doesn’t — which is ironic, given that Biden has been in government for 50 years.
I interrupted you. What’s the third takeaway?
The third thing is they are endlessly fed up with Trump and Biden. I can’t begin to tell you the antipathy they have for these two men. Each month I ask for a “show of fingers — how many wish neither Trump nor Biden run in 2024 and that both parties would select a nominee from the next generation of leaders?” and every finger goes up before I’m even done asking the question. No matter where we’re conducting the focus group, I’d say 98 percent intensely agree they want a next generation of candidates.
That both are persisting in their campaigns, with the acquiescence of their parties, is like no one is actually listening to the voter.
Well, and with Biden, it’s his age. There’s an overwhelming feeling that he’s not really there, that his mental acuity is compromised. This does not change. You know how he says things like, I better not answer that, I’ll get in trouble?
Just last week, in Asia, he looked at his staff to tell him who to call on during a press conference and said, “I’ll just follow orders here.”
Right. He does that a lot. Well, many swing voters take that literally — they believe there’s some power off-stage, in the wings, telling him what to do or say. With Trump, to a person, they’re dismayed by January 6. But what they don’t like about him precedes January 6. It was his handling of the pandemic, his tweeting, his not acting presidential. They rarely point to January 6 — because their minds were made up about him before then. I keep asking about impeachment and all these indictments, and that’s all old news to them. They decided he shouldn’t be president long before he was indicted.
Interesting. Biden’s only a few years older than Trump and he’s the same age as Mick Jagger. Does age come up for Trump, too?
I ask what people think should be the ideal age for a president, and it’s between 52 and 55. And then I ask what is the oldest acceptable age for a president — and they say it’s the mid-60s. So now we have two candidates who are both more than a decade older than the oldest acceptable age, and nearly 30 years beyond the ideal age. Everyone’s hand shoots up when I ask if we should have a constitutional amendment for an upper age cap — all are for it. And they think it should be between 65 and 75. Biden is now five years older than the oldest age swing voters think should be permissible. That’s a big driver in all of this.
I keep coming back to your serial dater analogy. It sounds like people know what they don’t want. But do they know what they want?
Not really. About 4 or 5 months ago, I asked what characteristics they were looking for in a presidential candidate. And they wanted someone who was presidential, who was honest. But then when you asked for third party candidate names, there would be a long stretch of silence and then you’d hear names like Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If I’d have asked that question 30 years ago, the answers would have been Gen. Colin Powell or Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Man. Does doing this ever get you down?
That’s definitely an occupational hazard. You definitely hear some sobering reactions to America’s political challenges. The hardest part is not reacting to the less-informed things people say. I have to train myself not to say “You’re wrong about that.” As the group moderator, you’re not supposed to be arguing with the respondents. They’re there to tell you the truth and get paid for it. They’re not there to argue with you.
I ask what is the oldest acceptable age for a president — and they say it’s the mid-60s. So now we have two candidates who are both more than a decade older than the oldest acceptable age, and nearly 30 years beyond the ideal age.
Give me an example of a low-information response.
Just last week, with our Pennsylvania group, I put up four unlabeled photos on the screen of Pennsylvania politicians. Seven of 11 could identify Gov. Josh Shapiro by name, and 10 of 11 could identify Sen. John Fetterman by name. But only 4 of 11 could identify Bob Casey, who has been our senator for 17 years. And David McCormick, who spent millions last year to run for the [Republican senate nomination] against Mehmet Oz? Only one of 11 could identify him. I’m endlessly curious about this. How can this be the case? That Casey, who has been in office 17 years, is hardly recognizable to voters?
Why do you think that is?
I have my own ideas. There’s a lot of shared responsibility. There’s a lot of news, but not a lot of useful news. So the media shares some responsibility, with its focus on loudmouth candidates and side issues. I place some of the responsibility on the candidates themselves. And, finally, there are the voters themselves. In a democracy, voters have to be informed. So there’s shared failure among multiple entities.
If Joe Biden called you tomorrow and asked for your advice, what would you tell him?
That’s easy. Retire. It would be the same advice to Trump. You’re not wanted among these swing voters. That’s a flip answer, I know. Beyond that, I’d tell Biden to do a better job of telling people what you achieved in your first term. The Inflation Reduction Act is spending an historic $369 million on climate change and only 4 of 11 swing voters in my groups last week know about it. How can that be? If I can find these swing voters to ask them about it, why can’t Biden’s campaign find them to tell them about it?
And what would you say to Trump?
Stop tweeting! You’ve constantly annoyed these voters who may have once supported you by always being in their face. You’ve exhausted them. Give them a break.
Are there any encouraging results you find in your focus groups?
The last couple of months, I’ve been hearing good things about governors. In our August Michigan focus group, 10 of 13 respondents praised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and wanted her to run for president next year or in ’28. Last week, seven of 11 recognized Shapiro and all seven wanted to see him run for president next year or in 2028. So they’re not negative on every politician. Everyone in our group last week, even those from Western Pennsylvania, had heard of how quick the collapsed part of I-95 went back up. They’re interested in the nuts and bolts of governing leadership. They’re results-oriented.
Finally, polls show Democrats — once the party of what Harry Truman used to call “the working man” — have experienced eroding support among that group. Do you see that in your groups and do you have insight as to why that is?
I don’t typically see that in my groups because I’m usually interviewing swing voters rather than mainstream Democrats. But there’s certainly a sorting in this country by geography and education level. Political scientists are having a field day working to explain why this is. I suggest reading Thomas Edsall’s columns in the New York Times if you want to better understand this phenomenon.
Did you see the ad for Gloria Johnson, the Tennessee state senator — one of “The Tennessee Three” — who is running for U.S. Senate, challenging Republican Marsha Blackburn? It’s a really values-based, in-your-face ad. Trump is a fighter — but he fights for himself. Gloria Johnson effectively says, “I’ll fight for you.” Are there too many quiche-eating Democrats for swing voter tastes?
Thanks to you, I watched the ad, and it’s powerful in large part because she sounds authentic rather than manufactured. I’m not sure swing voters are put off by quiche-eating Democrats per se. What they can’t stand are politicians who don’t share their values, be they on the left or the right. One thing they value is cooperation across the aisle, not more partisan bickering and retribution.
MORE ON POLITICS FROM THE CITIZENThe September 12 Swing Voter Project focus group