After watching the first presidential debate Tuesday night, undecided voters from battleground states across the country still had plenty they wanted to know about coronavirus, racial injustice and what each candidate would do to unite the country.
Out of 15 undecided voters in a virtual focus group conducted by veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz, four said they were supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden after watching the debate and two backed President Donald Trump. The rest remained on the fence. There were nine men and six women and they hailed from Arizona, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada.
“You just saw 90 minutes. How can you still be undecided?” an incredulous Luntz asked. “Please explain that to me?”
Despite their indecisiveness, most described Trump in a negative light, including one of the participants who was leaning toward voting for the president. The voters characterized Trump as “unhinged,” “arrogant,” “forceful," a “bully,” “chaotic” and “un-American.”
When asked to describe Biden they offered: “better than expected,” “politician,” “compassion,” “coherent,” and a “nice guy lacking vision.”
Across a one-hour session in which Luntz brought in a handful of reporters from national news outlets, including POLITICO, to pose questions to the group, the following is what stood out.
What pushed some over the edge
The roughly four voters who ended the night in Biden’s corner were stunned by Trump’s performance. Ruthie, a voter from Pennsylvania, described it as trying to “win an argument with a crackhead.”
Joe from Arizona said he entered the night leaning Biden and after the debate decided to vote for the former vice president. Trump didn’t defend his record on the unrest in American cities and protests, he said. “He inflames a lot of anger in this country,” said Joe. And on the pandemic, he said, Trump “couldn’t defend his record on slow-walking” the government’s response.
Luke from Wisconsin was one of the two participants to say he’s now voting for Trump. “Trump is annoying, he’s unpresidential,” Luke said, but on the economy and “law and order” he trusts Trump. Luke said he doesn’t want to be “afraid” for his community, pointing to riots in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, which left Blake paralyzed.
Why some remained undecided
The majority of the focus group remained undecided after the lengthy, chaotic debate. Many put a greater onus on Biden to deliver strong answers than Trump — excusing the president’s behavior as “typical” or just Trump being Trump.
Travis of Arizona said the few times Biden tried to land a jab on Trump “he whiffed.”
Joe in North Carolina appeared to be leaning toward Biden after the debate but still wasn’t sure — Trump and Republicans’ constant attacks on the Democratic nominee as “senile” or “sleepy” had gotten to him.
Biden won the debate, Joe said, because “there was no significant gaffe.”
“I was surprised that he did as well as he did,” he continued. “Some part of the narrative that Trump has spun so far that Biden may not be up to this task, it certainly did plant a seed of doubt in my mind.” Still, he said, while Biden's performance was strong, it wasn't strong enough to sway him to make a decision.
Kimberly from Ohio, the only Black person in the focus group, wanted to hear more about race relations and expressed frustration that little was said about Congress and the Trump administration's inability to reach a deal on stimulus relief. “You still have millions of Americans out there who can't even feed their families,” she said.
Biden and the left
A noticeable number of the undecideds were struck by Biden’s defiance when pressed by Trump about the progressive, left flank of the Democratic Party. And many said they wanted to hear more about efforts to unify the country from both candidates — a handful ended the evening thinking Biden would fashion a more diverse, bipartisan administration.
“My biggest concern about Biden going in and just throughout the whole primary was the radical left, so to speak, taking over the party,” said Joe of Arizona. But Biden’s answer convinced him otherwise. Now, he said, he planned to vote for the Democrat.
Biden’s declaration that he is the Democratic Party and the one who is deciding the platform, stood out to Jeremy from Arizona. That negated Trump’s attack that the Democrat would be a tool of progressive lawmakers like liberal star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) Even so, Jeremy said he remained undecided.
“I do not want another AOC, but I also don't want someone all the way to the right either,” said Jeremy. “What I want to see in the next two debates is why should Joe be elected? Not why I shouldn't vote for Trump. Trump's not presidential — we've gotten that.”
Similarly, Mike from Iowa said Biden’s “best answer” of the night came when he talked about unity. Mike wanted more information about who Biden would select for his Cabinet and if it would be bipartisan rather than dominated by progressive picks.
“Just tell us whose it's going to be. That would help, that would go a long way,” he said.
When asked by POLITICO about Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists, roughly five of the 15 said it was a moment that stood out to them across an otherwise hard-to-follow debate.
“That was definitely his worst moment,” said Travis of Arizona, who remained undecided after the debate. “That's like the easiest thing that he could do.”
Nick of Arizona, also picked it as the “worst moment” of the night for Trump.
“I don’t really think he’s some big racist, but I guess I don’t really know,” he said.
Earlier in the focus group, Nick had mentioned Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists as an example of Trump’s behavior that “makes it so hard for you to able to tell anyone that you’re voting for him.”
Kimberly from Ohio also raised her hand when asked whether that part of the night stood out.
At separate points throughout the discussion, she described Biden as someone who was “more approachable” and with an “open ear to talk about race relations without becoming offensive.”
But ultimately, she remained undecided.
“Being a Black woman, they did not say how they were going to improve race relations with Black people,” she said. “I'm undecided. And from my community, it's a lot of us who are undecided because it's darned if we do and darned if we don't, what do we get? We don't get anything from this system.”