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Wavering Black voters: Biden is flawed — and Trump is unacceptable

A focus group of Black voters with negative feelings about both Biden and Trump found them more willing to overlook Biden's flaws than Trump's.
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Months of polling has shown a segment Black voters, a key part of President Joe Biden’s base, souring on his performance and growing more open to voting against the Democrat than in any recent presidential election. 

Yet a new focus group of undecided Black voters in North Carolina — specifically, Black voters who view both Biden and former President Donald Trump negatively at the moment — illustrates that while those voters are clearly dissatisfied with Biden, most of them also see Trump as an unacceptable choice. 

These voters almost universally panned Biden as “old,” lamented what they saw as a lack of follow-through by his administration and questioned his strength politically. But they largely described Trump in even bleaker terms, using terms like “crazy” and a “grifter.” Three of the participants called Trump racist without prompting, after which a majority of the panel agreed.

The findings come from two focus groups produced in collaboration with Engagious, Syracuse University and Sago as part of the NBC News Deciders Focus Group series. The two groups included 14 Black voters in North Carolina, a potential swing state, who say they’re dissatisfied with both Biden and Trump.

“I feel like it’s a lesser of two evils. It’s either a politician who is making attempts to do things for the entire country, or someone who’s just about themselves or their party, their particular party and their people,” said Candice D., a 44-year-old from Charlotte. 

Just moments before, Candice called Biden “old” and Trump “divisive.” 

Carolyn G., a 76-year-old who is also from Charlotte, framed her choice similarly.

“Trump — I don’t want to go through another four years of his 'Make America Great Again' because America was not great,” Carolyn said. “I don’t want to go through another four years of Biden being indecisive as to what he’s going to do.”

“And I don’t see Biden doing anything to make the cost of living more affordable,” said Carolyn G.

The comments speak to the Biden campaign’s efforts to frame the election as a binary choice between him and Trump — and the reasons why. Biden spoke to the deep disappointment he’s facing from some voters at a recent campaign fundraiser in California: “It’s not like you've got to like me,” the president said. “What you’re doing here, though, is: We got to prevent this other guy from being elected president.”

Deep frustration with Biden

In a head-to-head matchup between Biden and Trump, only one of the 14 focus group participants affirmatively said they’d back Trump. But when the ballot was expanded to include independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., academic Cornel West and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, two said they’d vote for Kennedy and one each chose West and Stein. 

That result echoed some recent polling. The January NBC News poll showed 75% of Black registered voters saying they’d support Biden in 2024, while 16% said they’d back Trump, similar results to past NBC News surveys and other polls. That represents a dip among that group from 2020, when 85% of the Black voters surveyed said they backed Biden, 7% said they backed Trump and most of the remainder said they didn’t vote. 

Ten of the 14 focus group participants said the economy was in lousy shape, lamenting price hikes at the grocery store, the rising cost of living and the struggle to make ends meet with significant student loan debt. And these voters broadly criticized the Biden administration’s lack of accomplishments, even when presented with the administration’s own messaging, like a White House fact sheet trumpeting its accomplishments in helping Black Americans.

“I think that’s all political mumbo-jumbo,” Julius C., a 66-year-old from Mint Hill, said of the White House’s message. “People are hurting.” 

“I’m sure the numbers are statistically accurate, but they haven’t been statistically significant. If it was a significant change in those areas, then it would be obvious. We could all see it and we could feel it in our day-to-day lives,” said Michael G., a 54-year-old from Greenville.

“We would know people who were able to get a house that’s been struggling to get a house, and we would have seen people change their state from living check-to-check to doing better,” he continued.

But while they were down on Biden, many of the respondents made clear that he could improve his stock with them and their communities, particularly if they saw tangible positive changes on affordability or more follow-through on his promises to eliminate student loan debt, which have run into opposition in Congress and a Supreme Court ruling undoing a broad executive action on student debt.

And the respondents also had some positive things to say about Biden’s individual accomplishments, even if they broadly felt he has fallen short on his promises. 

“President Biden’s challenges in getting these voters to show up for him boil down to three Cs: communication, confidence and credibility,” said Margaret Talev, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship in Washington. 

“Donald Trump isn’t winning them over, and many deeply fear what a second Donald Trump term could mean,” Talev continued. “But they’re deeply ambivalent about another Biden term and if Biden doesn’t do more to change their minds they may sit it out.”

Majority think Trump is racist

Indeed, the group’s views on Trump were stark, particularly after the participants were shown recent comments the former president made last weekend at an event for Black conservatives. Trump pointed to his criminal indictments and said “that’s why the Black people like me,” because they “viewed me as I’m being discriminated against,” among other comments. 

None of the participants said Trump understood the concerns of Black Americans, and nine of the 14 said he is racist. 

“That’s probably one of the most racist comments he’s ever made,” Michael G. said. “His feeling that because he’s being indicted and because he’s being prosecuted for things he did, whether they’re deemed illegal or not in a court of law — so what, we’ve all been locked up? We all have a mug shot? We all fall into this bucket of indictment and because of that, we should feel closer to our overly indicted president?” 

“It’s like an insult,” said Kelli P., a 38-year-old from Jacksonville. “Are you serious? That’s what you think of us?”

Those sentiments and similar ones drove most of those voters to say they’d support Biden in the fall. Twelve of the 14 said they were more worried about four more years of Trump than they were about four more years of Biden. 

“Honestly, and I know this sounds terrible, I’m gonna vote against Trump. And if that means I’m voting for Biden, so be it,” Michael G. said. 

But not everyone took Trump's comments seriously.

"He's just pandering, to be honest. It's funny, that's why I'm laughing because I don't really take none of those statements he was making seriously," said T.C., a 40-year-old from Lumberton.

"He's an entertainer, to be honest, but he has to deal with his legal issues, and those are serious."

Some warning signs for Biden in third-party support

But that sentiment wasn’t unilateral. The four participants who said they’d vote for one of the third-party or independent candidates showed how Biden could lose some support from Black voters on the margins — and the margins have been where the last two presidential campaigns have been decided.

One of those participants was Shaleeya L., a 28-year-old from Gastonia, picked Cornel West. Critical of Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, she said she backed Biden unenthusiastically in 2020 but now isn’t sure if she’ll do it again. 

“For a fact, I’m not voting for Trump. So if I don’t want to vote for Biden either — then my choice is to not vote,” she said. She added that she’s waiting to see what happens between now and November, specifically referencing whether or not Trump is convicted or whether Biden takes more steps on student debt relief. 

“As of now, I have no preference. If we voted today, I probably wouldn’t vote,” Shaleeya L. continued.

Rich Thau, the president of Engagious and the moderator of the sessions, told NBC News that Shaleeya was “emblematic of voters who — disliking Trump — pulled the lever for Biden once, but haven’t witnessed a track record of Biden success that would compel them to return him to office.”

Speaking about the group as a whole, he added that “the Biden campaign should have two worries — that third-party candidates will siphon away votes, and that unenthusiastic Biden voters won’t vote at all.”

Harris gets poor marks 

While Vice President Kamala Harris is the first Black person to hold that office, this group of Black voters had few positive things to say about her.

They broadly dismissed her as “absent” or “inexperienced,” and only two were interested in seeing her run for president in the future. That said, eight respondents said they didn’t believe Biden was using Harris to her full potential.

“I don’t know what she’s doing. I don’t really see her that much,” Jerome L. said. “I just don’t think she has the experience.”

Michele H. said she’d be interested in seeing Harris become president because “there’s lots of ways that she has experience over other people.” 

“She’s not an old white man, she did go to an HBCU, she’s Black, she’s Asian, she’s a she. So for me, there’s lots of things that put her over some of the people that have been thrown in our face as a candidate,” she said.

Confusion on where candidates stand on abortion

While abortion has been one of the top issues for the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party ahead of the 2024 election, this group of voters lacked some familiarity with where Biden and Trump stand on the issue.

Three voters said they were unfamiliar with Biden’s stance on abortion, while six said the same about Trump. All of the panelists said that Trump was at least partially responsible for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022. Trump appointed three of the five justices who backed the Dobbs decision.

Abortion will be a top-three issue in 2024 for five of the participants, which includes four who support abortion access and one who supported the decision to overturn Roe.

“It ties into a lot of things, it gives you an idea of where that person’s perspective is. Human life is valuable, and if it’s expendable at any area, that’s very telling,” T.C. said about the issue of abortion.

“Women should have the right to choose, it’s their bodies. So I would like someone who'd like to be for that,” Kelli P. said.