It is both fun and agonizing to speculate about the midterm elections in November, and wonder if this or that development will impact the outcome. But the reality is that the number of issues that drive voter behavior is smaller than one might think.
I know this because I conduct focus groups of different swing voters every month and ask what matters to them.
Let’s dispense first with the items that many people think will matter to these respondents, but in reality don’t:
Biden’s Supreme Court nominee: Last week I asked 12 Trump-to-Biden voters to tell me whether the retiring justice, Stephen Breyer, is a liberal or conservative. Three knew. The rest gave me blank stares. These people, while aware that Breyer is retiring, simply do not think about the personnel on the Court enough for it to affect their voting behavior.
Not passing Build Back Better (BBB): Most respondents don’t know what’s in the legislation, so not passing it will make zero difference to them. When I asked about the failure to get BBB through Congress, respondents frequently confuse it with other Biden initiatives. One February respondent, for example, said he wanted BBB to pass because a Pittsburgh bridge had recently collapsed. He was unaware that a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill had been signed by Biden months ago.
Not passing voting rights legislation: As with Build Back Better, most voters I interview don’t know what’s in the legislation. And as I wrote last month, swing voters don’t diagnose the crisis with democracy the way you or I might. They’re more concerned about politicians’ lies and corruption, not whether voting rights are being constrained.
So, while these items barely cause a blip for swing voters, this next set of issues seems to register in a larger way:
Inflation: It’s certainly a deeply-felt problem, but its election impacts seem murky. Why? Swing voters mostly see inflation as a consequence of the pandemic and supply chain shortages, and that’s not any one person’s fault. Interestingly, for these voters, Republicans have not effectively pegged inflation to Democrats’ trillions in spending. The bigger question come November is how the economy is performing overall, and whether people feel economically secure at election time. If GDP and unemployment numbers turn south, combined with inflation, that would be a toxic mix for Democratic candidates.
The new infrastructure law: Swing voter focus groups last year indicated modest levels of support for additional infrastructure spending, but a decided lack of awareness of what the law calls for. That said, if congressional candidates can claim they voted for a bill that brings visible jobs and construction to their district, that’s likely a plus. Merely promising to bring these jobs in the future—even though the law has been passed—is unlikely to make much of a difference to these swing voters. Seeing is believing.
Their feelings about Biden: Every month I ask what emotion swing voters feel when they see Biden on TV or their devices. Before last summer, nearly all expressed positive feelings: (“calm,” “relieved,” “hopeful”).
By September, responses shifted to a clear mix of negative and positive (“disappointed,” “concerned,” “confused,” and “irritated,” alongside “content” and “relieved”). This variation has appeared every month since.
Clearly Biden’s standing has slipped, and his underwater poll numbers reflect it. However, for all of Biden’s shortcomings—and there’s no shortage of awareness of his failings—these respondents do not want Trump back. In a hypothetical rematch between Biden and Trump, 55 of my last 60 respondents from October through February—and remember, these are Trump-to-Biden voters—would choose Biden again.
Getting U.S. troops mired in Ukraine: Of 12 respondents in the February sessions, eight saw Russia as a competitor, not a threat. Among the four who saw it as a threat, three thought Biden should send troops to Ukraine if Russia invades. That overall hesitancy should give Biden pause—and pause to any candidate who might support putting U.S. boots on the ground after last summer’s departure from Afghanistan.
So what are the issues that will really affect the election? Try these:
COVID: There’s no better indicator of national mood these days than whether COVID case numbers are rising or falling. If swing voters feel the pandemic is finally behind us, and we’ve entered a manageable endemic state, that will help Democrats. In January, all 13 swing voters said we should pivot from a pandemic footing to endemic. If we’re still arguing over vaccines, masks, remote learning, and lockdowns in mid-autumn while numbers spike again, Republicans will romp.
Crime: Eleven of 12 February respondents said crime in their neighborhoods is worse now than before the pandemic. They blame the virus for making people bored at home and empowering them to think they can commit crimes with impunity. They also blame lax district attorneys and prosecutors and laws that don’t punish enough. But one key factor stands out: It’s governors, mayors, and people who hold elective judicial offices whose fates are tied to rising crime. It is unlikely to affect congressional midterms because members of Congress don’t directly govern their constituents.
Fully overturning Roe v. Wade: If this happens as a result of the Mississippi case before the Supreme Court, most respondents told me it will push them towards the Democrats running in congressional elections. But it will also push some social conservatives towards Republicans. On balance, it would likely help Democrats electorally.
Fully embracing Trump’s claims about 2020: Ten February respondents told me they fit into the category of willing to vote for a GOP congressional candidate, but would change their mind if the candidate suggests that the 2020 election was stolen. Significantly, a couple of respondents say it matters how a GOP candidate embraces the claim. If one does it in a Trumpian way—shouting it from the stump—they will be put off. But if one shows some finesse, and balances the claim with other issues that matter, then it’s a much easier pill for them to swallow.
What ties these higher-order voting issues together is their prominence in the media or in swing voters’ lives—and the odds they will remain salient over the next nine months.