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Is Kenosha a Warning for the Biden Campaign?

Listening to swing state voters in Arizona and North Carolina.
August 27, 2020
Is Kenosha a Warning for the Biden Campaign?
The carcasses of the cars burned by protestors the previous night during a demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 26, 2020. (KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday night I remotely conducted two focus groups, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona.

The demographics of the groups were the same. Both consisted of 2016 Trump voters. Both were composed of six white, college-educated women (those prized suburban women you hear so much about). And both were made up of voters who rated the president as doing a “very bad job.”

These women are what political operatives often call “soft Trump voters.” Yes, they voted for Trump in 2016, but due to their dissatisfaction with the president’s performance, they are potentially gettable for Joe Biden in 2020.

Trump won a narrow plurality of white women in 2016, but this group has been moving away from him ever since. Over the next two months approximately seven gazillion dollars will be spent trying to win their votes.

Here are my top-line takeaways from the conversations.

Big picture: I do two focus groups every couple weeks and both the NC and AZ groups tracked roughly with what I’ve been hearing for the last 6 months.

  • Things are bad. The country is going in the wrong direction. “Shit show” as one woman described it. People often tell stories of personal pain and economic distress in the face of COVID.
  • Trump is a bully and a narcissist, but they voted for him because they considered him a businessman who could potentially shake things up and they hate the Clintons.
  • They think Trump has done a bad job handling COVID and that people should wear masks but that the economy shouldn’t be shut down. His COVID press conferences are often cited as the moment women realized he wasn’t up to the task.
  • The media is terrible and one-sided and doesn’t give Trump credit for the good things he’s done—like the economy before COVID.
  • Politics are negative and divisive, and the participants in these focus groups say  and they’re not paying close attention to what’s been going on, but they’re definitely going to vote so it’s time for them to start doing research.
  • Joe Biden is “meh,” they’re not sure what he stands for, and, according to some, he’s possibly suffering from dementia.
  • Their views on the choice of Kamala Harris were generally neutral, with many saying they didn’t know much about her.
  • One participant was QAnon-curious.
  • Out of both groups, only one woman was watching the conventions. But everyone said they will tune in for the debates and undecided voters view the debates as critical to their decision-making. Even some who say they are planning to vote for Trump said they could change their mind if Joe Biden impresses them.

But Wednesday night’s groups also diverged in some key ways.

The group from North Carolina tracks pretty closely with roughly 20 swing-state groups I’ve conducted in the post-COVID environment. Of the six women in the group, one was voting for Trump, one was leaning toward Trump, two were definitely voting for Biden and two were undecided. All said they plan to vote in 2020.

Generally, I’d say this is representative. The groups are typically composed of 6 to 8 women (doing focus groups over Zoom means they need to be a bit smaller than when I was doing them in person), and the voting split almost always breaks down like this:

  • One or two Trump definites
  • One or two Trump leaners
  • One or two Biden definites
  • A Biden leaner (or two)
  • And a few undecideds.

But the participants in the Arizona focus group stood out for their continued support of Trump, despite their reservations about his performance.

The Arizona group consisted of six women: Three are voting for Trump again and three are undecided, but at least two of the women felt to me like they were leaning Trump. The sixth woman had voted for Trump in 2016 by essentially flipping a coin and was leaning toward doing the same thing in 2020 (flipping a coin, that is).

The most notable difference between the two groups was the way they talked about race and the ongoing civil unrest related to recent police killings of black Americans.

The North Carolina group was sympathetic to the protestors and said there was a need to reevaluate America’s relationship to race. One of the women had participated in several protests, all of which she said were peaceful. None of them had really heard much about the events in Kenosha. The only mention of violence related to the protests was from a woman suggesting that Trump and the police were inciting violence.

One North Carolina woman said she thought “this might be the start of another civil rights awakening and we might actually make progress on racial issues,” saying her views on race “have changed a lot over the past few years.”

The woman who had attended protests said, “more white people are becoming aware that they have privilege” and that “fear lies at the core” of a lot of problems that come from race issues and that Trump is “taking advantage of the fears of white people.”

A young woman who was undecided about whom to vote for—but was leaning Biden—said she “has become a lot more aware of racial issues in the past year.” While she grew up in an all-white town, she now feels like she needs to care about racism and thinks racial equality is “something worth fighting for.”

The Arizona group was a mirror image. They were all aware of what was going on in Wisconsin, and five of the six women were in complete agreement that what was happening was not peaceful protesting, but looting, rioting, and violence for no good reason. As one woman said, to supportive nods from others in the group:

If you’re obeying the law, usually you won’t get shot. If a cop tells you stop, stop. Follow orders. Did cops go overboard? Yes, don’t shoot a dude seven times. But if you follow directions we wouldn’t be here. If he was white no one would have cared.

There was also general agreement that Trump was right to send federal forces to Wisconsin. Two of the undecided voters said that the unrest made them more likely to vote for Trump.

As one woman said, “Trump is right that we should send in the National Guard. Why do our troops go overseas but can’t police here?”

Another observed, “I think people are looking for an excuse to run wild and do whatever they want, they can loot, burn, and blame it on white people. You can peacefully protest, no one has an issue with this, it’s when you start violence burning, looting, et cetera, you aren’t making yourself look good.”

These two groups were polar opposites, but in the past few months the voters I’ve talked to have generally expressed a mix of these sentiments: sympathy for the protests and the underlying causes, but disgust at those who use the protests to loot, riot, and destroy.

In this case, two groups of women with shared demography but distant geography viewed the racial unrest through the opposite sides of the telescope.

Because the opinions were so wildly divergent, I’m hesitant to draw any broad conclusions from the two groups around how Trump’s law-and-order message could potentially resonate with suburban swing voters. But I will venture two observations:

(1) There are swing voters for whom his divisiveness on race is a liability—and there are those for whom it is an asset.

(2) The North Carolina group knew relatively little about Kenosha while the Arizona group was much more familiar with the media coverage from Wisconsin. It is possible that the events in Kenosha could be an inflection point for swing voters.

If this is the case, then Kenosha could be the message Trump has been grasping for ever since the killing of George Floyd. It could be the case which finally lets Trump pry swing voters away from Biden.

The Biden campaign responded forcefully to Kenosha yesterday, with the candidate himself condemning the riots.

Joe Biden condemns police shooting of Jacob Blake

But he may have to do more. The Trump campaign will do everything possible to tie Biden to the riots and mayhem. The Biden campaign will need to make this work as difficult as possible. And that starts with recognizing that Kenosha may be a high-leverage situation.

Donald Trump is extremely vulnerable on his handling of COVID. If the election is about COVID, Trump loses. The Biden campaign clearly understands this.

But so does the Trump campaign, which is why they are desperate to shift the focus to protests and unrest in American cities. The chaos candidate understands that this at least gives him a chance.

Wednesday night’s focus groups suggest that Trump may be right.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.