AUSTIN—When only a handful of voters in a few key states can determine the outcome of a U.S. presidential election, understanding which issues matter to them is critical in crafting a winning campaign message.
“After the 2016 election, I was very frustrated,” Rich Thau, co-founder and president of messaging consultancy Engagious opened his presentation at ATA MC&E here Sunday. “I saw that these pollsters had conducted all these amazing polls, but they got it wrong. And what I found was they weren't listening. I wanted in 2020 to make sure that no one would be shocked by the outcome of the election. You could be overjoyed; you could be dismayed; but you shouldn't be shocked.”
And when “three one hundredths of 1%” of the electorate determined the outcome in 2020, Thau continued. “it's important to understand how these people think.”
So he launched the Swing Voter Project, in which Thau’s research team identifies and engages voters whose record does not reflect the more typical party loyalty of most Americans. In monthly calls with focus groups of such voters, the project keeps tabs on what’s they’re thinking.
Discouragingly, as Thau noted, very often these voters are not very well informed when it comes to actual policy discussions and legislation.
“Most of these people did not pay a lot of attention to politics, day to day—they were just living their lives,” Thau said. “The economy was a crucial issue for them. They also were not shy at all about how they felt about people from other countries were affecting our country in terms of trade and immigration.
“And finally, starting in the summer of 2020, I started hearing all sorts of really bizarre conspiracy theories, and they would just crop up in the course of my focus group conversations. But it was very disconcerting to hear people come up with things that just seem completely out of left field.”
Indeed, most people care less about issues and facts and more about a “shared sense of values,” Thau added.
“Humans take shortcuts, and most of the people I talk to are not policy experts,” he said. “As you can tell, they don't pay a massive amount of attention to the specifics of what's going on in Washington. They get a sense of where politicians stand on the issues and they behave accordingly. They make intuitive judgments based upon how the person looks, how they talk, what values they convey in their presentation; whether they talk over them or talk to them; whether they use language that they understand or they use jargon. So there's a whole endless slew of things that are part of people's calculus.”
The project is already hard at work on 2024, talking with voters who had switched from Trump to Biden in 2020. And while Thau relayed focus group discussions of items of interest to truckers—such as thoughts on electric vehicles (cost, range anxiety) and self-driving trucks (maybe in 20 years, but not yet), when it came to the concluding Q&A session, attendees had one key concern: Who’s going to be the next president of the United States?
Voters are increasingly displeased with Biden, according to the focus group discussions.
“You can hear the stress in their voices—the resentment, the anger, the frustration that one-percenters have it, and we don't,” Thau said, after showing several comments on the economy that, statistically, is strong. “Secondly, their attitudes about Biden became more negative during his presidency.”
And what about Trump’s legal problems? Thau suggested loyal Trump supporters have remained loyal; but the swing voters, not so much.
“Despite their reservations about Biden, most of these people don't want Trump back,” he said. “Over the past six months, I've asked the question, ‘How many of you would like to take Trump back in a Biden Trump rematch?’ Only 12 of the 70 said they would like to have Trump back. Now you heard all these issues they have with Biden—they're endless, but compared to Trump, most of them still would very grudgingly take Biden back.”
However, most people don’t won’t the rematch and age is a big concern. But a serious contender hasn’t emerged (although celebrity names like Oprah Winfrey and Duane “The Rock” Johnson frequently pop up in these chats).
“Anything can happen in 13 months,” Thau said. “My one prediction, and I’ll be very careful about this, would be that if both Trump and Biden are in the same general good health at the time of the election, and if they're both the nominees, then you're going to have an extraordinarily close election. extraordinarily close.”