The signs of dissatisfaction with Democrats didn’t end there. Respondents were also asked about the rise in crime and border issues. Democrats got zeros across the board. Perhaps most troubling of all, some respondents indicated that they preferred the economy under former President Donald Trump.
“Our economy is the lowest it’s been in god knows how long,” said a Hispanic respondent who lives in New Jersey. “We keep [sending] money to Ukraine and other countries rather than helping ourselves.”
The responses underscored a harsh reality for the Biden campaign as it braces for what is expected to be a bruising reelection bid. The president has to sell his record on the economy — in which he has a credible case to make — and it simply isn’t resonating with voters of color who supported him in the first place. In fact, they don’t see much progress as having been made at all.
“Not a lot of good words on this list,” said Terrance Woodbury, the Chief Executive Officer and Founding Partner of the liberal-leaning polling firm HIT Strategies, which convened the focus group. Woodbury’s firm specializes in reaching marginalized voting blocs that are crucial to the Democratic coalition.
The HIT Tracking Focus Group, which POLITICO was given exclusive access to, pinpointed weak spots for Democrats going into 2024. All respondents were granted anonymity to speak freely. They discussed a range of topics, but chief among this group’s concerns was the economy.
The president and other high-ranking members of the administration have been traversing the country in recent weeks, pitching the American electorate on what they have done to ignite a booming economy coming out of the pandemic. In addition to a record of legislative achievements like the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act, Biden has pointed to the fact that unemployment has reached a historic low of 3.5 percent. That’s the lowest it’s been in more than a half century, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. He’s gone so far as to brand the policies driving the recovery “Bidenomics.”
There’s mounting evidence the rosy outlook Biden is promoting is not resonating with the American public. A survey from Quinnipiac University on Wednesday found nearly six in ten Americans — 58 percent — disapprove of his handling of the economy. Biden is above water with Black voters on the economy, but 35 percent of Black voters still say they disapprove — a far cry from how he performed with this group in 2020. His marks with Hispanic voters are even worse, with 50 percent disapproving of his handling of the economy.
As this focus group laid bare, the messages not being heard by this crucial bloc of minority voters, may signal trouble for a president who needs them energized heading into 2024.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said another respondent, who identified as Asian American and Pacific Islander. “They’re kind of like saying that there possibly is going to be a soft landing, but they’re also expecting a recession of some sorts. It’s kind of a mixed message.”
One respondent was explicit that he wasn’t sure if he would turn out to vote for Biden again.
“I’m definitely not happy with where America was when Trump was president. And I’m not happy with where America is, now that Biden’s president,” said an African American man from Cleveland, though he did say he remains a registered Democrat. “We’ve already had years of both of them being president and with no kind of good results. So I’m hoping there’s some other you know, candidate or alternative besides these two.”
Woodbury acknowledged that the president is having some trouble getting his message across.
“When I hear the president talk, I think he’s saying a lot of the right things,” he said. “When he talks about the Emmitt Till memorial, when he talks about the need to protect Black history, when talks about the impact of Bidenomics – I mean he’s saying it, they’re just not hearing it.”
Officials with the Democratic National Committee say their efforts to reach voters of color are vast, including the launch of its “Campaign Readiness Project” ahead of last year’s midterms that includes bootcamps for organizing and coalition building. Additionally the chair, Jaime Harrison, has been conducting in-person events, like one last week in Mississippi, to tout the Biden-Harris administration’s accomplishments.
Cornell Belcher, a veteran Democratic pollster who worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns said it’s not yet time for Democrats to panic and that Biden is in a similar position to Obama in 2011. A Gallup Poll from August of that year showed Obama in tight contests with leading GOP presidential hopefuls including Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. That same poll showed Mitt Romney, who eventually would secure the GOP nomination in 2012, having a slight advantage over Obama.
Those polls didn’t hold, because, he said, slowly Democrats’ message began to gain traction because they connected a narrative of economic success to the American electorate. “It is a slow burn,” Belcher said.
Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha said it’s going to take more than just Biden or the DNC to fund outreach to this bloc to understand what’s going on with these voters.
“They’re still overwhelmingly voting Democrat, but there’s definitely been a slippage.”
The focus group revealed the challenges Biden faces in reigniting the enthusiasm he enjoyed during his presidential run three years ago.
“I don’t feel like Democrats really have my back … or Republicans, you know?” said one respondent from Los Angeles who identifies as Black and Latino. “I think as a president, you only have so much power. I mean, unless you’re someone like Trump to where he just — he really didn’t care. He did what he wanted to do.”
This respondent spoke highly of the Trump-era economy, citing the cryptocurrency boom under the former president. He said he considers himself “middle of the road,” politically, but has soured on Biden. “Trump got in there and he changed stuff,” the respondent said.
When pressed on Trump’s legal woes and what many see as an embrace of white nationalist sentiments, he added: “If you’re getting the job done, I can’t really hate on that.”