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Meet 'double disapprovers': swing voters who could decide the presidential election

Many Americans say they do not want to vote for either President Biden or former President Trump this year.

These voters make up a critical part of the electorate this year — 14 percent of respondents in the latest NPR/PBS/NEWSHOUR Marist poll say they are part of this demographic. Many live in swing states where even a small number of undecided voters could decide the winner of the Presidential election this year.

Their numbers are increasingly significant. The last time the ‘double hater’ or ‘double disapprover’ voting percentage was this high was 2016 between when Trump faced Democrat Hillary Clinton. That year broke decisively toward Trump. It was a much smaller slice in 2020, around 3%, but their ranks have expanded as President Biden’s approval ratings have dropped.

NPR wanted to know more about these voters and what, if anything, will help them decide who they will vote for this year.

To find out, NPR partnered with polling expert Rich Thau of the public opinion research firm Engagious and Sago, a market research firm. Thau talked to 12 voters, in two groups.  All had switched their votes from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020, and they mostly reside in the swing states that will determine the 2024 election.

What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of their conversation with Thau on May 23, 2024.

 The first panel of 'double disapprovers' from May 23, 2024.
Screenshot by NPR
/ Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
The first panel of 'double disapprovers' from May 23, 2024.

Focus Group #1 participants, clockwise from the top:

Eugene D., 43, Decatur, GA, software development, Independent; Robert K., 52, New Hope, MN, music instructor, Independent;Robert K., 63, Scottsdale, AZ, retired from software engineering, Independent; Cherlyn B., 48, Decatur, MI, homemaker, Republican; Nikaiya S., 45, Lansdowne, PA, lunch lady, Independent; Rich Thau, moderator; Asa H., 62, Monroe, NC, restaurant manager, Independent

Rich: Alright, we're going to go through a word association exercise. I'm going to mention a person and I want to hear the first thing that comes to mind when I mention this person's name. So let's start with President Biden for the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear President Biden. Everybody got one? Okay.

Cherlyn: Struggling.

Asa: Concerned. 

Rob: Senile. 

Bob. Patriotic.

Nikaiya: Senile.

Eugene: Old.

Rich: Okay, next person. First thing that comes to mind. Former President Trump. Everybody have a word or a phrase that comes to mind? Don't overthink it. Just looking at the first thing that comes to mind.

Eugene: Jackass.

Bob: Unhinged.

Cherlyn: Not an option.

Nikaiya: Offensive.

Rich: Okay, so I want to go back to President Biden. Now, what if anything do you like about him? This doesn't have to be just a single word or a phrase just in a sentence or two. There's something you like about him. 

Bob: I think he's got the best interest of the country at heart. I think that he puts the country before self. I think that in my opinion, that he's doing the best he can with a fractured Congress.

Eugene: I'm going to have to back up my friend Bob here. I think he's doing the best he can with what he's got to work with. And I honestly think he cares. He’s probably got the best intentions of any politician in my lifetime.

Asa: I would say struggling because as the other two gentlemen have already said, I think he's trying his best. I think he's very patriotic. I think he wants to do the right thing for the United States, but because of the way the Congress and the rest of the government is fractured, as we said, I think it's a big challenge for any president that goes into office with challenges like that.

Cherlyn: I like that conducts himself like an adult. 

Rich: Let's go back to former President Trump. What if anything do you like about him?

Eugene: That he's no longer president.

Rich: I'm asking this as a straight ahead question. Snark free. 

Eugene: Then nothing.

Bob: Some of his immigration policies. 

Rob: His immigration policies and his understanding of China's economic undercutting of the US economy.

Nikaiya: Same, immigration policies. And what's crazy is the same things that I dislike about him, I like about him. I don't always agree with how honest he is, but I can respect it that way. It's out in the open.

Rich: Okay, let's go back to President Biden. What if anything do you dislike about him? 

Rob: He turns every tragedy into a story about himself. I mean, I'm just like, how can you make it about you when other people died or some people were injured. 

Cherlyn: He's just been around too long.

Eugene: It seems like he does what's politically expedient. He doesn't necessarily stand by the things that he says.

Rich: Okay. Let's go back to former President Trump. What if anything, do you dislike about him? 

Cherlyn: I'm just trying to narrow it down. Just the turmoil he's put the country in all of his indictments, his shady practices. 

Eugene: His tendency to lie when the truth will do. Say for example if someone plays a recording, a video recording or audio recording of him saying one thing. If he disagrees with it, he's like, it didn't happen. It's fake. Despite having action, been video recorded or audio recorded, having said the thing.

Bob: I think his utter disregard for the office of the presidency and what it stands for in the last 248 years that we've established. I also think that his policies towards our allies, in particular NATO and South Korea and Taiwan, putting us at a disadvantage with the rest of the world in our allies not knowing what we're going to do or what we're thinking.

 

Rich: So it looks like Biden's running against Trump again this November. And for this next question, I want you to assume that these are your only two choices, or that you could choose not to vote. So for a moment, let's imagine the election is tomorrow by a show of fingers. if these were your only two choices, who would not vote? 

Asa: I find it hard to believe that in the entire nation of millions and millions of people, that we are right back to the line of two people. I don't understand how we end up with just two people. We're right back to where we started. 

Rich: So does sitting it out and not voting help one candidate over another? And if so, which candidate benefits more if you don't vote?

Asa: Probably Trump.

Rich: He benefits more if you don’t vote?

Asa: I think so.

Rich: How so? 

Asa: Because if I had to vote, it might be probably for Biden because I think Donald Trump had his opportunity. I think there was a lot of people that believed in him that he could make some change and it just didn't happen. It just didn't happen.

Rich: So for the other five of you, given that binary choice, who would vote for Biden? Okay, Eugene, Bob, Nikaiya, Cherlyn.  And Rob, you would take Trump. Okay, got it. So the four of you who would take Biden, tell me why you would take Biden.

Nikaiya: Well, he really didn't do much this time, but I would be willing to give him a second chance for a number of reasons. And at the top of my list, I definitely need my student loans wiped out, which was among one of the promises that was made.

Cherlyn: I hate the phrase, but it’s the lesser of two evils. 

Bob: I have much more confidence in Biden's ability to represent the country in foreign affairs. I think that from an integrity perspective, he is by far the better choice. Again, if we only have choice of those two, some of me is leaning towards what Cherlyn said, it's the lesser of two evils, but it's clearly night and day when we have one candidate who has been indicted and is facing felony charges and is a known liar and another one who has dedicated his life, albeit somewhat ineffective at times to the service of the country and in an honorable fashion.

Eugene: I'm actually a mix of Bob and Sherilyn in that because these are the only two choices I would definitely pick Biden over Trump and because Biden is more of a statesman, granted he's been in public service longer than I've been alive, but he's good at it. He's built relationships with world leaders and the kinds of world leaders that we want to have positive relationships with.

Rich: Rob, why would you take Trump? 

Rob: The economy was better, immigration was better controlled. Biden passed the law [the 1994 crime bill] under Bill Clinton where Hillary Clinton came out and said these are super predators and that locked up minorities at a much higher rate than the general population. And Trump signed a law to reverse that, to let some of these people out early, primarily minority people. Also, when people talk about, oh, the conservative court, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Obama ran on that in 2008 and said he would make it law and he didn't do it and Biden was part of that ticket. They completely, they could have legalized it nationwide and they didn't do it even though they said they would. 

Rich: Okay, so let me ask you this, Rob, just as just a speculative question. If Trump is convicted of a felony or multiple felonies in the New York trial, would that affect your willingness to vote for him at all?

Rob: No, because it'll be all overturned on appeal.

Rich: Got it. For all six of you, by a show of fingers, who wishes that neither Trump nor Biden were running this year, you had a different set of candidates to choose from? All six of you. Please listen carefully to this next question. By a show of fingers, for how many of you will this be a vote against the candidate you don't like more than a vote for the person you do? So all six of you. Alright, so I'll give you another scenario. Imagine the election is tomorrow and it's a five-way race between Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Cornell West and Jill Stein.

Or you could of course choose not to vote. So these are your options. So by the show of fingers in this group, who would take Biden in this five way scenario? Eugene, Bob and Sherilyn. Three of you. Who would take Trump? None of you. Who would take Kennedy? Rob. 

Rich:. So Nikaya, you're not taking any of those five?

Nikaiya: I really don't know who I'll vote for. Biden would just be like, okay on a whim. But yeah, no, I really wouldn't know. Out of the five, not today.

Rich: So wait a second. So it's a two-way race. You're taking Biden over Trump. It's a five-way race. You stopped supporting Biden?

Nikaiya: Not necessarily stop, but I mean unless the other three give me a better reason to choose one of them. 

Rich: Just give me a sense of it. Is it you would vote for in this five way choice, are you likely to not vote or are you likely to vote for Biden?

Nikaiya:I would be likely to vote for Biden.

Rich: So I'll change my Biden count from three to four. All right. And Asa you still wouldn't vote?

Asa: You know what if the election was tomorrow and these three individuals just showed up? I would have to do cram time. I would find out as much as I could about those three. And if it was something that I didn't like that I would definitely go with Biden. But I think a change needs to happen between these two individuals. We cannot keep going down the same road anymore.

Rich: And Rob, you would go from Trump to Kennedy? Yep. Tell me about that decision.

Rob: I've seen numerous interviews of his, I've read bad pieces. He's put out, for example, he was against the Covid vaccine and people said, ‘Oh, you're an anti-vaxxer.’ He said, no, just this vaccine. I got chickenpox when I was a kid. The vaccine wasn't invented until 1995. It took him that long. The man who invented the mRNA vaccine said it's going to be leaky, so it means it's going to spread. We were told ‘You can't work, you can't do this, you have to wear a mask.’ And that all turned out to be lies. And he pointed that out and he took a lot of grief for it. But he has a line in between Trump and Biden where I see that he's a clear choice. 

Rich: So by a show of fingers who would say you're paying close attention to the 2024 presidential campaign, who's paying close attention to it? Four of you all. Okay. So if you had to place a $50 bet on the outcome of the election, who would you say is going to win? Not who you want to win, but who you think realistically will win by a show of fingers. Who would say that you think Trump will win?  Three of you. Who thinks Biden will win? The other three of you. 

Rich: So by a show of fingers, without saying anything, who can name at least one thing President Biden has achieved while in office? Something that Biden himself would say is an achievement. I got one-Bob. Anybody else, name any achievements from Biden in his three plus years? I got Eugene as the second, the other four of you it seems are no, Okay. 

Bob: Well, the one thing that comes to mind immediately is to champion the student loan forgiveness program.

Eugene: His infrastructure bill, getting the billions to fix America's crumbling and aged infrastructure.

Rich: If President Biden were to be reelected by a show of fingers and without saying anything, who can name something he has pledged to do in a second term? I'll take that as a No, none of you have anything you can remember he's pledged to do in a second term? Okay. 

Rich: By a show of fingers who can name at least one thing former President Trump achieved while in office as in something that Trump himself would say is an achievement. I've got Rob, Bob, anybody else? Just two of you. Okay. Rob, what did he achieve?

Rob: Putting tariffs on Chinese goods so they couldn't undercut U.S. manufacturers. I don't know how successful it was, but he visited North Korea and everyone said, ‘Oh, he is going to start World War III. He's going to start World War III.’ And I go, why would he go and meet with this guy?

Bob: Those are the exact two things that I had in mind.

Rich: By a show of fingers, and again without saying anything, who can name something former President Trump has pledged to do in a second term? Three of you. What does he pledge to do?

Eugene: Be a dictator on day one. 

Rich: Is there anything policy-wise you can remember him pledging to do?

Eugene: He talked about securing the border. 

Bob: He indicated that he would have no qualms about firing folks in the Department of Justice if they didn't prosecute who he wanted them to. And thus making the DOJ more under the executive branch and to their whims rather than being independent.

Rob: Restricting immigration, putting a hundred percent tariff on Chinese electric vehicles that are manufactured in Mexico as they try to get around the tariff. 

Rich: I'd like you all to stop and think for a moment about this next question. I'm going to call on you again one at a time. What is the top issue in the news these days that concerns you the most? 

Nikaiya: I have a few actually. I'm really concerned about the opioid epidemic. 

Rob: The southern border.

Asa: The security of America, the borders. And not only Mexico, but I think Canada has its challenges too. I think it's a little bit harder to come across the border in Canada, but just securing the country.

Cherlyn: What grabs my attention is housing prices. I'm fortunate that I'm of an age and time in my life where it's not a concern, but I think for many young Americans, housing is a real issue.

Eugene: Inflation. 

Bob: Future of our democracy.

Rich: I have a follow on question to that. So first sort of a concise answer to this one, what do you consider the biggest threat to your long-term future? Let's say like 20 years from now.

Asa: I’m 62. So Social Security, that's my biggest concern right now. My wife keeps telling me I got to work till 72, only if she joins me. But social security and where that's going to go and where it's going today and looking out for all of us that have paid in so much money into it and hopefully getting something out of it to help us live a quality of life.

Rob: Government spending and inflation.

Cherlyn: I was going to say inflation as well. As secure as I feel right now, it’s that uncertainty in the future, what inflation's going to bring and how that could shake things up.

Bob: The economy, inflation and the stability overal of the economy.

Eugene: The ongoing stability of the United States as a concept.

Nikaiya: I would definitely say Social Security. 

Rich:  So by a show of fingers who thinks the US economy right now is in lousy shape, show of fingers could say the US economy right now is in lousy shape. Asa Rob, anybody else? Nikaya. Three of you. So the unemployment rate is near a 50 year low at 3.5%. Inflation, which was surging a couple years ago, has receded. The stock market is flirting with all time highs. Economists who look at the economy now think it is in stellar shape. In other words, what do you see that they don't see? 

Nikaiya: Well, I live in a big city and the cost of living is outrageous. Everywhere you turn around is all these luxury apartment buildings being built. The state minimum wage is still probably the lowest out there in Pennsylvania. So I mean it is like people aren't going to know what to do and I believe it's going to keep people impoverished and struggling to keep a roof over their head.

Asa: The continuing rising of prices of everything, especially groceries. I'm grateful that my kids are moving out and going to college because I'm a restaurant manager and sometimes I say it's cheaper to eat in a restaurant than it is to go shopping. Everything just seems to be going up, haircuts are going up. The barber that I go to has had his scissors for the last 25 years, but yet the prices just keep going up and up and up. It just seems like, yeah, where's all this money going?

Rob: Just like they both said, the cost of living. We rent right now, we're looking to buy, but the rent just keeps going up and up. And I go, how did you improve my living situation? The cost of groceries and the fact that the government just seems to give money to some people who come here undocumented, but we have homeless people by the millions in this country. 

Rich: Do you feel like your finances are in better condition, worse condition than four years ago? Or are they the same? Who would say that they're better now than they were four years ago? Four of you. Who would say they're worse? One. Asa, You'd say the same?

Asa: Same.

Rich: I'd like to know who you think would do a better job managing the economy over the next four years. Trump or Biden? How many of you would say by a show of fingers that Trump would do a better job managing the economy over the next four years? Two of you, Cheryl and Rob. Who thinks that Biden would? Three of you. 

Nikaiya:I guess somewhere in the middle. When Trump was president, he did try to get the ball rolling with the stimulus payments.

Rich: Okay, so two of you think that Trump would do a better job handling the economy over the next four years. Cheryl, why do you think Trump would do a better job?

Cherlyn: As much as I don't like him, I do think he has a lot of good fiscal policy and I just haven't been crazy about Biden's willingness to spend. So that's why I'd say Trump.

Rob: Pretty much the same. Where apparently we can send billions to Ukraine and to me that's a European war and Europe should be supporting them, not so much the United States. And we can send billions to Israel, but we can't turn around and spend that money with jobs, programs, housing for the homeless here. 

Rich: Okay, Eugene, why would Biden do a better job on the economy?

Eugene: I believe he focuses more on the domestic programs that do need attention. And I reference again, the infrastructure issues that he's trying to get tackled. And then he's also promoting chip manufacturing in the United States as well as electric vehicles built in the United States. So he's also promoting American industry.

Rich: Bob, why is Biden better on the economy? 

Bob: Again, I kind of agree with Eugene. What he's done so far for the economy has been positive. It is difficult to compare Trump and Biden because the Covid years were something that was just off the charts with a one off sort of thing. But his infrastructure policies, his investment in businesses, his union policies, but the thing that we've got to remember is Trump, Biden or anybody else, they can only do so much as president. It's really up to Congress. So you can have the best policies, the best intentions, but if Congress doesn't play along, nothing happens or only part of that happens.

Asa: I have to second with what Eugene and Bob just said as well. It is about industry and about supporting the infrastructure of America and just build again, buy again from the United States. I think that's what he's been doing. That's what he's been trying for.

Rich: Okay, so who in this group is concerned about the current situation at America's southern border? All six of you. 

Eugene: We're on the verge of a humanitarian crisis and there seems to be no clear solution to get it resolved. And then there's been talk of taking all the people who have crossed the border who are not currently awaiting asylum trials or what have you, and quote unquote sending them back where they came from. But there's no way you can humanely uproot 11 plus million people from wherever the hell it is.

Rob: The free flowing, that when Trump was president there was Rule 42, it said stay in Mexico and then apply for asylum and Biden came in and got rid of it. And also we had this flood of humanity come in and Mexico doesn't want them going through Mexico. But the government there is corrupt in enough of the states that people are sending people over illegally from China to come into the U.S. through the southern border. That's where the fentanyl comes from. 

Bob: The lack of enforcement of the federal laws for immigration. Again, it goes back to the border seems to be relatively open, the southern border, and we have laws as Texas is trying to implement, Arizona is trying to implement state laws to make it illegal to cross, but that runs against the federal laws.So if we have it on the book, let's enforce it.

Rich: So who's most to blame for these concerns?

Cherlyn: I cannot put that on one party. I would say our political leaders as a whole, it's been something they've all neglected and that's how I think we've gotten into this.

Nikaiya: Yeah, I can't even really say Trump, so I would have to say Biden.

Rich: Okay. And why Biden?

Nikaiya: At least Trump tried. He tried to regulate it. I mean, he might not have went about it the right way or his approach to it, but it could have been better regulated by Trump 

Rich: Who’s to blame for the situation we’re in right now? 

Rob: The Democratic party and businesses that want to drive down people's wages by having people from other companies or countries coming in here and working for less money than Americans. It's also known as the great replacement theory in terms of who will vote for the Democratic Party.

Rich: Anybody else to blame for the situation we're in right now with immigration? 

Bob: The political establishments that have been in place for decades and decades, all parties, every two years, immigration is an issue. Every four years immigration is an issue. And you look back at Republicans, you look back at Democrats, they've all said they're going to try to fix it. It still is the worst it’s ever been. And it's a political time bomb because when you start making legislation to restrict people, then you lose voters.

Rich: By a show of fingers, for how many of you will abortion be a big factor in who you'll vote for in November's presidential election? Three of you.

Nikaiya: Because I have a young daughter and I am a grandmother, a little girl, and who knows? God knows what might happen. And I don't want them to feel ostracized because they don't want to have a baby. It should be their choice.

Cherlyn: I don't have daughters. I have sons, but I don't want women younger than me having less rights and freedom than what I've had.

Rich: And just to make sure I know where each of you stands on this, who in this group considers yourself pro-choice? Five of you. Asa you also. All six of you. 

Rich: I want to call on each of you to give me a word or phrase to describe the current state of American democracy. 

Nikaiya: Weak.

Cherlyn: Concerning.

Bob: Chaotic and at risk.

Eugene: Crumbling.

Rob: Dysfunctional.

Asa: Non-caring.

Rich: By a show of fingers, who thinks that the U.S. does more bad than good in the world? Who thinks the US does more bad than good in the world? One of you. How so Rob?

Rob: We constantly feel that we have to go into countries and we're in Syria. We're still in Syria because why? I don't know, because of oil. Why do we go to Iraq? Oil? Why do we go to Afghanistan? The Taliban is still there.And what is, it's 20 years of spending all that money killing millions of people in the Middle East. How did that benefit today? It didn't at all.

Rich:  And by a show of fingers, for whom in this group will the Israel Hamas War and the situation in Gaza be an issue that will affect how you vote in November? None of you. So for none of you, this is an actual voting issue? Okay. Got it. Alright. 

Copyright 2024 NPR

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The second panel of 'double disapprovers' held on May 23, 2024. / Screenshot by NPR
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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.