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Listen to What Trump 2016 Swing-State Voters Had to Say About the Debate

Nine women. All from swing states. All 2016 Trump voters. And they have thoughts about Trump's debate meltdown.
September 30, 2020
Listen to What Trump 2016 Swing-State Voters Had to Say About the Debate
This is fine. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday night I checked back in with a focus group of female 2016 Trump voters in swing states that I’ve been tracking to get their reactions on the debate. And there’s no sugar-coating it: Whatever Donald Trump was trying to do last night backfired with this group spectacularly.

Some context: I’ve done roughly a hundred hours of focus groups with Trump voters since 2018. During this time I’ve zeroed in on female 2016 Trump voters in swing states who now rate the president as doing a “somewhat bad” or “very bad” job.

What’s interesting about this demographic is that they are theoretically “gettable” for both Trump and Biden. Trump needs them to pull a repeat of his 2016 inside straight. But if Biden pulls them from Trump’s column into his own it’s an especially big win, because he didn’t just earn a vote for himself, he also subtracted one from Trump.

I began tracking this specific group of swing state voters a couple weeks ago because, of the nine participants, seven were truly undecided. One was voting for Trump. And one was settled on Biden.

Trump’s comments last week in which he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power landed badly with the group and overshadowed in their minds any potential positives of Republicans locking in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s SCOTUS seat. In fact, many of the women said they were pushed more toward Biden because they thought Republican attempts to jam the nomination through were unfair.

Trump’s performance in last night’s debate did nothing to win this group back and caused some of the previously undecided women to close the door on Trump for good.

Every single one of them had watched the debate and had hoped to use it to make a final decision. Here’s a roundup of each participant’s overall reaction:

PA Voter 1: “It seemed like Trump was steamrolling him and bullying him. I felt so bad for Biden that Trump was treating him that way. Joe didn’t get a fair shot, we didn’t get to hear what he thinks about things. I feel like Joe has more to say and we just didn’t hear it.”

PA Voter 2: “Biden did as well as he could’ve. I think Trump was trying to get him off his train of thought to make him look like he has dementia.”

NC Voter: “It turned into a shitshow. It was embarrassing. I think Biden did a bit better than I had expected. He did keep his wits about him, and Trump acted in typical Trump fashion.”

PA Voter 3: “I felt last night was a drinking game. It was terrible, I’ll be honest I was gonna go to bed early last night. It was captivating in that it felt more like gladiator pit than political debate. I was praying that Biden was going to come in and slam dunk, and I was really disappointed.”

AZ Voter: “Disappointing and sad is what I left with. I felt bad for Biden and I felt bad for the mediator, because of the complete disrespect. I agree that we weren’t able to get a full idea of Biden. I was hoping I was going to come away with more, I’m leaning more [toward Biden] because Trump is disrespectful and embarrassing, but I’m looking forward to the other two debates.”

PA Voter 4: “If people in other countries watched that, it makes me wonder how he behaves with foreign dignitaries. Much of what Biden said I lost because Trump was always talking over him. If I was Biden I don’t think I’d agree to a second debate.”

FL Voter: “It was difficult to watch and finish. I was relieved when it was over, I was very disappointed in both of them. I don’t know if I can support either of those candidates, I lost respect for both of them. I wish Biden would’ve been a better foil to the president and not responded in the same terms. I understand why you’d tell someone to ‘shut up’ but I wish he could’ve been a contrast to Trump a little more. I felt like Biden stuck to talking points. I was disappointed all around.”

TX Voter: “Donald Trump was one of the most obnoxious and rude people in the universe. I have to hand it to Joe, he held his wits better than I thought he would. I guess my question is: Do I really have to vote? I don’t know but I want to, but it was discouraging. I don’t think either one won.”

WI Voter: “I agree with the rest, Trump was the bully. I think maybe Biden should’ve been more prepared on how to deal with that, because that was to be expected.”

When I asked them what had stood out the most to them, it was far and away the president’s refusal to condemn white supremacists.

PA Voter 3: “Are we serious right now? You’re on live TV, you’ve got every single social injustice thing happening right now . . . Just come out and condemn it! Is it for all of the rednecks that you’re not telling the KKK to knock it off? I had a WTF moment while that was happening.”

FL Voter: “That was the one thing that moved the barometer in the debate for me. I found that appalling. I still don’t know if I have a reason to vote for Biden, but that closed the door on voting for Trump. It really was appalling. It shut the door on me feeling like I could vote for him. I don’t feel like I have an option to go to from there. How he handled the issue of systemic racism and every question related to that was appalling.”

NC Voter: [Imitating Trump] “Stand down white supremacists right now, but if I say the word later and I lose, I’ll call you back out. I don’t know, it’s just a firestarter. If someone tells you that you should condemn extremist groups, you should unequivocally say I don’t support you, don’t do anything on my behalf. That’s what a president should say.”

The one voter in the group who was planning to vote for Trump said this:

TX Voter: “I don’t know if I am going to stick with him. That was awful last night. I’m moving more towards the fence, I really am. It was despicable behavior, the way he attacked Joe’s sons, one of whom is dead, it was terrible.”

Interestingly, these women thought Trump’s strategy was a transparent attempt to rattle Biden and make him look like the senile caricature that Trump’s campaign has been pushing on voters. But these women thought that it seemed less like Biden had dementia and more like he was a guy constantly getting interrupted by a jerk:

PA Voter 2: “I think Trump was his own worst enemy, if he let Biden talk we would’ve found out if Biden is cognitively all there.”

WI Voter: “I think Biden did fairly well…It got to the point where [Trump] was attacking his son and blatantly lying about things, you’re trying to keep your cool but then you get interrupted. I don’t know if it’s a cognitive issue or getting annoyed and thrown off by constant interruptions. I don’t know if we learned that much positive or anything swaying to help us make decisions, but cognitively he did fine.”

TX Voter: “Biden did better than I thought he would, gotta hand it to him, but he drifted a little bit, but then again a Rhodes scholar might’ve too if they were heckled like that.”

A focus group isn’t a poll. But the reactions I heard seem to line up with the quick-reaction polling after the debate: That’s nine 2016 Trump voters, not a single one of whom is currently willing to vote for the president again in 2020.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.