WASHINGTON — For the small share of voters who might still be up for grabs in 2020, Joe Biden may seem “old,” “inconsistent” and like a "slightly uncool uncle."
But for those who have also been repelled by the personal behavior of the White House incumbent, Biden has one other key trait: He’s “good enough.”
That’s a top takeaway from two focus groups of persuadable voters conducted by veteran pollsters Peter Hart and Nicole McCleskey. The pair of sessions — made up of eight men and ten women , respectively — were conducted Wednesday night, after the first presidential debate but before President Donald Trump tested positive for Covid-19 and was transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center.
Of the combined 18 participants, a total of seven voted for Trump in 2016, six voted for Hillary Clinton and five more voted for a third party candidate or did not vote at all. This cycle, just three said they currently plan to vote for Trump and two remain undecided.
The remainder plan to vote for Biden. Almost all specifically cited Trump’s temperament as a primary reason.
“Just the way that he conducts himself to me is offensive. It's embarrassing,” said Stacy, a financial account processor in North Carolina who didn’t vote four years ago but now supports Biden. “I feel like his arrogance is what drives him.”
“He is very much showing that he is not about all of the people. He’s only about some of the people,” said Eric, a registered Republican stay-at-home dad in Wisconsin who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016 and now classifies his vote as one "against Trump."
For some, the president’s debate performance also crystalized their concerns about his temperament.
“Trump didn't want to focus on truths or answering questions,” said Jim, an account manager in Illinois who voted for Clinton and supports Biden now. “He was more interested in bullying and intimidating the other candidate.”
Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducted the men's focus group, said that these voters' observations captured many Americans' sense of fatigue with Trump's personal behavior in office.
"Trump is 'enough already.'" he said. "Biden is 'good enough.'"
"They're grown adults. There's no need to act like that."
All of the participants described the first debate in harsh terms, with most suggesting that neither candidate covered themselves in glory. “Disappointing,” “disturbing,” “insulting” and “embarrassing” were among the most common terms used to describe Tuesday’s clash.
“They had no order, and they were fighting over each other like a teacher yelling at a student,” said Maria, a nursing home worker from Missouri who plans to vote for Biden. “Like, they just didn't get along, and they're grown adults. There's no need to act like that.”
A new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed that 49 percent of voters said Biden did a better job during the debate, while just 24 percent said Trump had the better performance — although nearly three-quarters also said that the debate had no impact on their vote choice. The same poll also found that Biden has more than a 30 point advantage on the question of which candidate has the better temperament to be president, with 58 percent of voters picking Biden and just 26 percent picking Trump.
That divide was on display in both focus groups, with Trump’s defenders mostly honing in on his economic record.
“Our economy was doing very well before coronavirus., in particular, the stock market,” said Tyler, a gig worker from West Virginia who plans to cast his second vote for Trump. “And I think that the person that helped bring it there is the person to help revive it.”
Nate, a military instructor from Arizona, added that — while he does not classify Biden as “a communist” — "the deep seated Socialist undertones of the Democratic party at the moment worry me.”
“I like what President Trump has done with the economy, he said. “I would be very concerned about what a President Biden would do to our economy.”
But in contrasting the two candidates’ values, even Trump’s voters offered a less flattering assessment.
Asked about Biden’s core values, a smattering of participants offered “money” or “power” while the majority said “family,” “faith,” “a moral compass,” “a sense of community,” and “integrity.”
But asked about Trump’s core values, six of the eight men gave the same answer: “His ego.” The remaining two — both Trump supporters — gave similar alternatives: “power” and “ambition.”
Trump fared even more poorly among the female voters, a group for which national polling shows Trump trailing badly. Asked to describe Trump in a single word, they offered: “Arrogant.” “A bully.” “Unethical.” “All over the place.” “Crazy.” “Self-centered.” “Character.” “Elitist.” And “corrupt.”
“Can you say asshole in public?” one mused.
These voters weren’t particularly enthusiastic about either of their options in the election.
“We have to make a choice between two candidates that I think most people wouldn’t have picked in a normal environment,” said Kathryn, a local government worker and registered Republican in California who’s voting for Biden.
Still, the former vice president’s supporters in the group cited Biden’s empathy and sincerity as central to their vote choice.
“I think anybody but Trump is right for this moment,” said Gina, an operations manager in Florida who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016. “But I think [Biden] does want to do the right thing. He wants to have respect for the office and the people. His quality of being a human, a person, I think is something that we’ve been lacking.”
“It’s integrity,” said Alex, a realtor from Colorado who voted for Trump in 2016 but now plans to vote for Biden. “I think he’s an honest and sincere person and he’s going to try to do what he can to serve his country."
“Slightly wacky, slightly uncool”
Asked to describe Biden in a single word, the focus group made up of men offered some tepid responses, calling him “puzzled,” “confused,” “inconsistent” and “frail” — but also “genuine” and “good enough.”
But the negative reviews among the women’s group (“old” and “sleepy”) were outnumbered by the positive ones (“integrity,” “nice guy,” “stable,” “ethical,” “experienced,” and — again — “good enough.”)
Asked to compare Biden to a family member, most offered avuncular images of a goofy uncle or doddering, forgetful grandfather.
“The slightly wacky, slightly uncool uncle, who nevertheless, you can call him at midnight if your car is broken down, and he'll come get you,” said Natalie, a gig worker from Iowa who plans to vote for Biden.
Asked to describe Trump as a family member, the responses were somewhat darker.
“An abusive uncle,” one male participant said.
“The cousin we don’t talk about,” said one participant in the women’s group.
“He's the uncle who corners you at the family reunion," another said. "And then he starts trying to convert you to something."
"Or grope you," chimed in a third.