How do independent voters feel about President Biden and America after his first year in office? Let’s put it this way: His weak approval ratings might go up if he pulled a Trump and just declared that America was moving on from the pandemic and he was going all in against inflation and high gas prices. Never mind about voting rights or avoiding another Jan. 6. It’s the economy, Joe.
So it seemed listening to a new Times Opinion focus group with 14 independent voters, who are far more worried about their finances than about Covid’s impact, as the transcript of the conversation below shows. Asked what they held Mr. Biden responsible for and what they would tell him if they had the chance, the independents emphasized energy prices, the economy and the importance of being a moderate, as well as a desire to avoid Covid mandates and lockdowns. The virus might not be done with America, but several of these independents are done with the virus.
The focus group was made up of people who had voted at least once for President Barack Obama and at least once for President Donald Trump. They were less furious about the state of the country than pessimistic about the future and dismissive about whether Mr. Biden and either party could improve things. “They are resigned rejecters,” Frank Luntz, a longtime strategist for Republican candidates, who led the discussion, said afterward. Senator Joe Manchin came in for some praise, Anthony Fauci came in for some criticism, and most were lukewarm on both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump running again.
Times Opinion has begun convening focus groups as part of a new series, America in Focus, to explore what voters think about the country and to expand the reach of opinion journalism to include people who often feel voiceless in the national conversation. We held focus groups with Democrats and Republicans recently about Jan. 6 and the state of democracy.
Independent voters were decisive in the 2020 election, favoring Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump by a 13-point margin, according to exit polls; these voters are now souring on Mr. Biden more than any other group, according to a new Gallup poll.
As is customary in focus groups, our role as moderators was not to argue with or fact-check the speakers, and some participants expressed opinions not rooted in facts. The discussions are led by professional focus group leaders; with guidance from Times Opinion, Mr. Luntz chose the participants and led this discussion. (Times Opinion paid him for the work, and he has done similar work over the years for political candidates and partisan groups.)
This transcript has been edited for length. An audio recording and video clips of the session are also below. As is common with focus groups, the speakers’ last names are not included. They provided their ages, race or ethnicity and job background.
Frank Luntz: Give me a word or phrase to describe life in America today.
Scott (53, white, Florida, works in health care): Divided.
Janet (66, white, Ohio, customer service): Dismal.
Julia (50, white, Illinois, small-business owner): Disappointment.
Don (36, multiracial, Georgia, elementary school educator): Indescribable.
Tenae (44, Black, California, director of security dispatch): New normal.
Nick (43, white, Pennsylvania, merchandise designer): Burned out.
Azariah (38, Black, New York, hospitality): Stressful.
Travis (45, white, Kansas, corporate finance): Lost.
Frank Luntz: Sounds like things are pretty tough for the country. Do you guys agree with that? What’s going on here?
Tenae: I said “new normal.” So let me explain that. We have never, as a nation, experienced anything like this, as far as the virus, the variants of it. So it causes a lot of chaos. There’s misinformation out there. I think it causes a lot of people to be angry. There’s more domestic violence. There’s more road rage. There’s more killings. There’s a lot that’s happening because people don’t know how to actually deal with this or they’re in disbelief.
Nick: You know, we’ve been promised a lot by past politicians, and it just seems that nothing ever changes.
Janet: It changes. It gets worse. I have a grandson. He’s on the autism spectrum, and I’m worried about what’s happening at school. Do you wear a mask? Don’t you wear a mask? I don’t know what the future holds. It’s scary. And I’m 66, so I have seen this country in lots of ups and downs, and I feel this is the lowest point in my lifetime.
Frank Luntz: Raise your hands if you agree with that statement, that this is the lowest point in your lifetime.
[Six of 14 raise their hands.]
Alice (60, Latina, New York, supervisor for homeless services): I think they’ve taken us back to cave man time, where you would walk around with a club. “I want what you have.” You’re not even safe to walk around and go to the train station, because somebody might throw you off the train, OK? It’s a regression.
Jim (59, Asian, California, office manager): We’re being tested, and everyone is uncertain.
Dickie (38, white, Texas, financial analyst): When Alice was talking about the cave man thing, I can agree with that. I’ve had my bike stolen here in Austin, in a very gentrified neighborhood, four different times in the last seven, eight months. Things are kind of chaotic. I feel like there’s no rules, really.
Frank Luntz: How many of you think that the level of crime is up in America today, versus a year ago?
[Twelve people raise their hands, all but Don and Scott.]
Julia: I live in downtown Chicago. I’m sure you’ve heard on the news what’s been happening here. The crime in Chicago is completely out of control.
Mark (51, white, Texas, business manager): I think it’s kind of common sense when you’re trying to defund the police, that you take away from their budgets — logically, the crime is going to go up.
Frank Luntz: Who do you blame for that? Who’s responsible?
Kristine (50, white, Arizona, construction project manager): Local officials.
Mark: And the D.A.s are just letting it happen.
Jules (42, white, Virginia, stay-at-home parent): The D.A.s. Yes.
Tenae: As far as defunding the police, I have to be honest, it makes me angry. You need to come up with another solution if you want to defund something. And I get it, because there’s so much racism happening. There’s so many people being killed, of my color. That is a problem. But if you’re going to defund something, you need to have a solution. There is too much happening, women being stalked and killed. There is a lot of child trafficking. What do we do about that?
Don: I actually was on the end of defunding the police at one point, but here recently, in my area in Georgia, crime has skyrocketed.
Azariah: A lot of these young kids, it’s so easy to get a gun. A lot of these kids are so young, and so a lot of these elderly folks, they fear for their lives. I have family in the police force, in N.Y.P.D. I know there are bad police officers out there, but there are a lot of good ones, and a lot of their good deeds don’t get highlighted.
Frank Luntz: Are any of you so concerned about what’s happening out there that you literally lose sleep at night over it?
[Six of the 14 raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: What are you losing sleep over?
Janet: The pandemic. Who is going to be next? That kind of thing. What can we do to help?
Alice: Keeping this roof over my head. I don’t want to be the one to be in a shelter. Because I work for one on the weekend, a women’s shelter. I don’t want to become that client. So that was worrying me. I had to go to the doctor and get, short-term, a little medication. I’m, like, “Listen, I need you to shut this down.” Shut the brain down, because this is — I don’t want to become a statistic like that.
Frank Luntz: Do you live paycheck to paycheck?
Frank Luntz: How many of you, by show of hands, live paycheck to paycheck?
[Seven people raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Travis, you indicated you’re losing sleep. Over what?
Travis: Just general frustration. I think it’s the sensationalism the media puts forward and the fearmongering that it puts out there. And I’m fearful for our democracy because of it.
Patrick Healy: Alice and Travis just made two points — one is about the condition of the economy, and one is about the condition of our democracy. You can certainly be worried about both. But I do want to ask for a show of hands, which worries you more? The condition of the economy?
[Eight raise their hands.]
Patrick Healy: The condition of our democracy?
[Seven raise their hands; Julia votes twice.]
Patrick Healy: OK. Kristine, could you speak to the economy, and Mark, democracy?
Kristine: My husband was laid off twice since this all started. And we missed house payments, and I had to learn a lot about the economy and waterfall [payment] stuff and everything that they were offering. And now, constantly, inside, I’m stressed out waiting for it to happen again, getting laid off and the economy being all over, then you talk about supply chain stuff. I could use a little more assurance and plans, instead of just a lot of shrugging and saying that things are better than they are. I would prefer some straight truth.
Frank Luntz: Who’s saying that things are better than they are?
Kristine: Jen Psaki, for one. And some occasional media. Also people on Twitter. So if you ever look at Twitter, that’s just crazy.
Patrick Healy: Kristine, have you and your husband found jobs? Did you find jobs pretty quick?
Kristine: Oh, yeah, he got other jobs. He got laid off twice from the same company. So this is a new company now. But it’s all remote, because we’re in Arizona, and where he works is now in Washington State. So it’s been very weird.
Patrick Healy: Is he making more money now than he was before?
Kristine: Yes, actually, he is.
Mark: Democracy is more concerning. You see how the Democrats in power, they seem to be wanting — changing the rules, you know. Voting rights, we can’t win free and fair elections, so let’s change some rules there.
Frank Luntz: If you could speak to them, what would you tell the politicians that they don’t get about your life?
Jules: I don’t care about Covid anymore. I want my kids to have a regular life. I don’t want the masks. I don’t want them social distancing. I do not worry about them getting sick.
Frank Luntz: Alice, what would you tell them?
Alice: I need one of you to shadow me, for at least two weeks, from paycheck to paycheck.
Travis: Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. Stop always trying to stick to the narrative.
Patrick Healy: Travis, can you give an example of someone you wish would admit they were wrong?
Travis: Anthony Fauci. I feel like he just continuously can’t be ever cornered and wants to continuously move the goal posts, and that’s in the name of science. And I don’t think he’s probably a bad person, but I can’t stand to listen to the guy.
Frank Luntz: Anthony Fauci, who has a positive view towards him?
[Five people raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Who’s got a negative view of Anthony Fauci?
[Eight people raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: We’re going to do a word and phrase for the Democrats and word or phrase for the Republicans. Scott, give me a word or phrase to describe the Democrats.
Scott: Cohesiveness. The anti-hate. Calmness, I would think.
Don: Revolution. Revolutionary.
Jim: Sometimes too liberal, but together.
Alice: They’re more, like, people-oriented.
Janet: He stole mine.
Azariah: Sweet talkers.
Julia: Going toward socialism.
Nick: Smooth talkers.
Jules: Currently intolerant.
Frank Luntz: OK, now give me a word or phrase to describe the Republicans.
Jules: Very loud.
Nick: They don’t represent everybody.
Julia: Have to regroup.
Kristine: Wrong direction. I can’t think of one word.
Jim: Dishonest and cowardly.
Alice: More business-oriented.
Don: Unnecessarily divisive.
Frank Luntz: I’m going to ask you this question, because I’m trying to understand you. You sound like you’re independent because you reject both political parties. Not that you like them both and you want to choose between both but, actually, you’re rejecters. Kristine, do I have it right?
Kristine: Yes, absolutely. I am so sick of the stranglehold duopoly. It just frustrates me so much. Keeps everybody infighting among the people while they all just go to their barbecues and cocktail parties and laugh. They just want the power. They couldn’t care less about us. We need more options.
Janet: What she just said is perfectly correct. I try to vote on policy and not look at the parties, because the parties are what’s killing us. They can’t compromise.
Jim: Stand up for what you believe. Both sides. You can’t be too liberal, and if you don’t agree with your party, speak up. If you can’t be honest with yourself, then people see through that. We deserve better in politics.
Scott: I think that when you have an election and the best both parties can give you is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, you’ve got a problem.
Frank Luntz: And what about 2020?
Dickie: I really respect Joe Manchin in the Democratic Party, because he has seemed to hold tight to some sort of beliefs that aren’t on the party line. I wrote his office a couple of times during this last couple of months, just congratulating him for trying to hold the deficit down.
Frank Luntz: If there is an election for president tomorrow and the candidates were Joe Biden, the Democrat; Donald Trump, the Republican; and Joe Manchin, the independent, who would you choose?
Who would choose Trump?
[Mark, Tenae, Azariah and Julia raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Who would choose Biden?
[Scott, Don, Jim and Alice raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Who would choose Joe Manchin?
[Janet, Kristine, Jules, Dickie, Nick and Travis raise their hands.]
Scott: God, we’re so divided.
Patrick Healy: We’re going to turn now to President Biden and want to talk about his first year in office. Can I get a word or phrase that describes President Biden?
Scott: Just calmness.
Kristine: Out of touch.
Don: Functional adult.
Jules: Complete disaster.
Azariah: Spaced out.
Frank Luntz: Has Biden exceeded your expectations or fallen short? And explain why.
Jim: I think Biden is trying his very best. In these times, it’s just really hard to lead, and you know, he’s a nice guy, and sometimes you don’t need a nice guy being president. You just need someone tough.
Kristine: I didn’t think he would ruin anything, but I didn’t think he would improve anything, really. It would just kind of be status quo. But instead, he’s incoherent without a teleprompter. I have questions about his mental health. And you know, my dad had dementia, so I’m concerned about that.
Frank Luntz: Does anyone here think that he’s exceeded your expectations?
[No one raises a hand.]
Frank Luntz: Tell me the best thing about Joe Biden. What has he brought to Washington in the last year?
Don: I said “functioning adult,” because I haven’t seen that in the past four years. I’ve seen someone who really decimates anybody that’s not like him.
Alice: The distributions of those vaccines — they became more available, whether we agreed to the vaccine or not. We’ve been able to have access as quickly as we do and in different neighborhoods.
Kristine: Corn Pop story was funny.
Frank Luntz: Let’s look towards the future. Could it be that it was just his first year and the second year will get better?
Mark: You can’t really do much worse.
Nick: I would say, another year of the same — stagnation. He had eight years as a vice president, and I figured he would have had experience and would have been able to lead and unite the country more than he has. And I don’t see that happening.
Frank Luntz: Would you prefer a Republican Congress or a Democratic Congress, knowing that you voted for Trump and for Obama, knowing that you are ticket splitters. How many of you say the Democrats?
[Scott, Don, Jim, Dickie and Azariah raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Republicans?
[Janet, Kristine, Jules, Julia, Tenae, Mark, Alice and Travis raise their hands.]
Jules: I just want to send a message. I think the Democratic Party is nuts at the moment, and the only way I can send that message is with my vote.
Janet: Yeah, the progressives have taken over the Democratic Party.
Patrick Healy: Let me get a show of hands. Are you confident that President Biden and his team can get Covid under control during his term in office?
[Jim, Dickie and Alice raise their hands.]
Patrick Healy: And how many of you don’t believe they can get it under control?
[Scott, Janet, Kristine, Jules, Julia, Don, Tenae, Mark, Nick, Azariah and Travis raise their hands.]
Travis: You can’t control a virus.
Frank Luntz: I’m going to give you five different issues: Covid, inflation, immigration, crime or voting rights. If you had to pick just one of those that concerns, frightens, bothers you the most — again, Covid, inflation, immigration, crime, voting rights — how many of you say Covid is No. 1?
[Don, Jim and Tenae raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: How many of you say crime is No. 1?
[Azariah, Julia and Janet raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: Immigration?
[Mark raises his hand.]
Frank Luntz: Voting rights?
[Scott raises his hand.]
Frank Luntz: Who says inflation’s No. 1 issue?
[Kristine, Jules, Nick, Dickie, Alice, Travis and Julia raise their hands.]
Frank Luntz: What is it about inflation that concerns you the most?
Kristine: Just the cost of everyday items that are going up. You can see it happening. My own personal security feels threatened by inflation.
Nick: It affects my everyday life, from everything that I do and choose to do throughout the day. I’ve had Covid multiple times, and I’m concerned with that, but inflation is hitting us every day in our pockets and everything that we do.
Jules: My grocery bill is through the roof.
Tenae: It’s price gouging. If I sell you Lysol for $11 but I charged $26 for shipping, what is that? We’re not used to that.
Patrick Healy: A show of hands — are you confident that President Biden and the Democrats have a plan to improve the economy, to deal with inflation?
[Nobody raises a hand.]
Patrick Healy: I’m curious what you think is fair to hold Biden responsible for?
Julia: Definitely gas prices, definitely inflation, definitely the Afghanistan disaster.
Travis: Poor energy policy.
Kristine: Foreign policy, I have concerns.
Dickie: How we feel about ourselves.
Alice: The budget.
Jules: I agree with energy and also Covid.
Mark: Let’s say not standing up to China, kind of being in their pockets, and not really standing up like Trump did.
Azariah: Not having a better connection with specific communities.
Patrick Healy: How many of you would like to see Biden run again in 2024? Show of hands.
[Nobody raises a hand.]
Patrick Healy: How many of you’d like to see Trump run again in 2024?
[Tenae, Julia and Azariah raise their hands.]
Patrick Healy: Can I hear from someone who voted for Biden in 2020 who does not want him to run again, why that is?
Alice: He’s too old.
Scott: Both parties can put better people to run than the two that we’re getting. It’s really sad. I think Beto O’Rourke is a good choice or Buttigieg’s a good choice. I think Kinzinger is a good choice. Fred Upton, you know, Tom Rice, Doug Ducey.
Dickie: I would like to see someone — Beto O’Rourke, he’s from my home state. I loved Mitt Romney. He seemed down the middle.
Kristine: I’d like a woman, maybe Tulsi Gabbard.
Scott: Gretchen Whitmer.
Frank Luntz: OK. I’m Joe Biden. You get a chance to tell me one thing, and you have only 10 seconds to do it. What would you tell me?
Jules: No vaccine mandates.
Travis: Get rid of your staff.
Azariah: No lockdowns. No more lockdowns.
Alice: Fix the crime rate.
Jim: Take action and be honest and go for it.
Tenae: Start regulating the ports.
Mark: Get the border under control and take it much more seriously than you are currently.
Janet: Please be moderate, like you used to be, and don’t tell me that I have to wear a mask anymore.
Patrick Healy: The anniversary of Jan. 6 was pretty recent. How concerned are you that in the next presidential election there will be some kind of attempt to undermine the election, to change the outcome of the election, violence, or are you not concerned about that?
Jules: I am not concerned. I also did not think that Jan. 6 was remotely the disaster that it’s being made out to be.
Nick: I’m not too concerned. We’ve always had those issues, with chads in Florida. There’s always been questions about what’s been called into our elections and said that they were unfair.
Dickie: I’m only concerned if Trump is running again. I think our elections are safer now than they’ve ever been and more tabulated.
Alice: I’m not concerned. The United States knows how to lock things down.
Frank Luntz: I always do this. Anything you want to ask Patrick? I’ll let two of you. He does not know I’m going to do this. He’s got to go on the spot.
Julia: I want to ask if anyone knows — we know that Biden is just a puppet. Who is pulling the strings? I would like to know.
Patrick Healy: Julia, I don’t think — I don’t think that’s true. And it’s not just my opinion. I don’t believe that he’s a puppet. He’s a —
Julia: Who is pulling the string?
Patrick Healy: He was elected fair and square in 2020. So he’s the president.
Scott: This is the problem. This is the problem.
Frank Luntz: What’s the problem?
Scott: That people think these things. That the election was rigged, that it was stolen, that Biden’s a puppet. I mean, this is the problem in the country, that people believe this stuff.
Janet: But he ran as a moderate, and he hasn’t done anything moderately. It’s been all listening to the progressives.
Scott: Well, Trump ran as the least racist person in the world, he said, and we know how that turned out. So, I mean, people say things.
Kristine: That’s irrelevant.
Janet: But he’s been a moderate for 40 years, Biden. And then, all of a sudden, he’s not, so something’s wrong.
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