Inside Story

Which way will independent voters jump?

The real issues in the US presidential race have been swamped by the big news

Lesley Russell Colorado 15 March 2024 1681 words

Long-distance runner: Joe Biden arrives in Philadelphia from a campaign trip to Atlanta on Saturday. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Months ahead of the parties’ national conventions, the US presidential campaign is already in full swing. Joe Biden and Donald Trump have each secured enough delegates to be sure of their party’s nomination. Trump has been in full campaign mode for months, largely as an offset to his legal woes; Biden’s State of the Union oration was essentially his first 2024 campaign speech.

But behind the hyperbolic headlines — “Trump Racks Up Massive Wins in Super Tuesday GOP Races,” “How Trump Steamrolled His Way to the GOP Nomination” or “How a Fighting Biden Took on the State of the Union” — are the many twists and turns that will determine the campaign’s eight-month trajectory and its outcome in November.

The only thing the two putative candidates agree on is the significance and consequences of this year’s vote. Trump says, rightly for once, that the 2024 election will be the “single most important day in the history of our country.” Biden says the election is “all about whether America’s democracy will survive.”

In the days since Biden’s State of the Union speech, duelling campaigns in Georgia and other swing states have offered glimpses of the two candidates’ strategies for courting an electorate less than enthused by another Biden–Trump showdown. It’s clear that this re-run of the 2020 faceoff will test the limits of campaign financing and political decorum.

The endgame is the pattern of voting in the general election — and, more particularly, in the swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Using polling to make forecasts is complicated by the fact that the winner is the candidate who racks up the most electoral college votes, not the most votes.

Polls offer little in the way of accurate insight at this point in the election cycle. But as their current base of support stands, neither Trump nor Biden can win. The polling averages from FiveThirtyEight and 270toWin have them neck and neck, with their favourability ratings languishing in the mid-fifties.

The votes that will make the difference must be won from independent voters and those party voters who are not strongly committed to either Trump or Biden. Here, despite his age and the general lack of enthusiasm for a second term, Biden seems to have the edge. But he faces problems with some segments of the population: the Democrats’ longstanding advantage with Black, Latino and Asian American voters has shrunk to its lowest point in more than sixty years; his administration’s failure to end the Israel–Gaza conflict has upset young voters and especially Arab Americans and Muslims; and many young people are simply lukewarm about Biden. Nevertheless, the president has consistently gained more than 90 per cent of the Democratic vote in the primaries to date, and even in Michigan, where Gaza war sentiment led many to vote “uncommitted,” he scored more than 80 per cent.

Trump’s base is more galvanised, more rusted on, and smaller. His party’s “Never Trump” contingent remains strong, as seen by the support Haley attracted. On Super Tuesday she received more than two million votes across fifteen states. She pulled 37 per cent of the Republican vote in Massachusetts, 33 per cent in Colorado, 29 per cent in Minnesota, and a surprise victory in Vermont. A week later, after she suspended her campaign, she drew more than 77,000 votes in Georgia (a state Trump lost to Biden in 2020 by fewer than 12,000 votes).

What is rarely pointed out is that Republican state primaries are increasingly a winner-take-all proposition for the convention delegates (a situation cleverly engineered by Trump campaign staff). On Super Tuesday Trump reaped 93 per cent of Republican delegates while winning only around 70 per cent of the vote.

Haley’s continuing support shows that Trump hasn’t been able to defuse his long-term problems with suburban voters (especially women), moderates and independents. These are the voters who cost him a second term in 2020 and could potentially cost him again in 2024.

A key issue for the Trump campaign is where the Republicans who voted for Haley will go in November. Quinnipiac University polling found that 37 per cent of Haley voters would vote for Biden and 12 per cent would stay home. Emerson College polling found 63 per cent of Haley primary voters would vote for Biden in the general election with 10 per cent undecided. Some exit polls have delivered even higher numbers of voters reluctant to commit to Trump.

Trump, who has derided Haley using sexist and racist language, has shown little interest in reaching out to her voters. In January he seemed to reject them outright, declaring that anyone who made a donation to Haley “will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp. We don’t want them and will not accept them.” No surprise then that many of her supporters wonder whether they still have a place in the Republican Party, a perception that will only deepen as Trump, his campaign and his family take control of the Republican National Committee.

Trump’s efforts to appeal to independents have been desultory at best; he seems incapable of moving beyond the rhetoric of stolen elections, woke liberals, the deep state, threats from illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, and his own perceived victimisation. His speeches offer little more than a dark vision for his second term. His embrace of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Hungarian president Viktor Orbán and other authoritarians, his suggestion that he was open to making cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and the persistent efforts of conservative Republicans to undermine women’s reproductive rights won’t win over these independents.

This inability to broaden his support is the biggest threat to Trump’s efforts to reclaim the presidency. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Biden will have an easier time sweeping up the independents and undecideds. Will those concerned about the Israel–Gaza crisis who opted for “uncommitted” in the primaries vote for Biden in the general election, or will they simply stay home? (Given Trump’s vilification of Muslims they are unlikely to vote for him.) That will largely depend on what happens in Gaza between now and November. And can Biden and the Democrats reverse their declining support among minority groups and young voters?

The changing demographics of the United States has seen a decline in the White, non-college educated voters who have been the mainstay of the Trump Republican Party, an increase in politically active young voters, many of whom don’t see either party as dealing with the issues that matter to them, and an increase in racial and ethnic diversity at a time when race is a central political issue.

The Pew Research Center has reported that Biden received more 90 per cent of the Black vote in 2020 while Trump received just 8 per cent. But this year these voters are frustrated with Biden over a range of issues, including the lack of progress on racial justice and the economic impact of soaring inflation.

Latino voters, who make up some 15 per cent of the electorate, are a heterogeneous group politically, with divergent opinions on issues like immigration. A recent poll from the New York Times and Siena College shows 46 per cent of Latino voters supporting Trump and 40 per cent supporting Biden (albeit with a large margin of error).

Recently Trump has touted his support among the Black community, though not always in flattering terms. He does have a growing contingent of Black hip-hop artists among his vocal supporters and most recently resorted to using AI-generated pictures to build his credentials with the African-American community. But there’s little evidence of a major shift in support; a December poll showed only 25 per cent of Black adults had a favourable view of Trump.

Jaime Harrison, the African American chair of the Democratic National Committee, has accused Republicans of promoting “fairy tales about their plan to win over Black voters.” He made particular note of the fact that Trump “pals around with white supremacists.” Just days after the Trump campaign began its overhaul of the Republican National Committee came the announcement that the party is closing all of the community centres it established for minority outreach in California, New York, North Carolina and Texas.

Ideology aside, the issues that will drive voters to the polling booths in November are common to all Americans: the economy and its impact on family budgets, healthcare costs, immigration, gun control and abortion. America’s role in supporting Ukraine and as a potential peacemaker in Gaza will also be important. These issues often play out very differently for Democrats and Trump Republicans: abortion and reproductive rights, immigration policies and gun control are classic examples. Perceptions of other issues, including the economy, interest rates and the outcomes of Biden’s national security and foreign policy efforts, will change — perhaps dramatically — between now and voting day.

For many Trump supporters, policies (or lack thereof) are of little consequence; like Trump, they are not interested in a united country or a bipartisan approach to legislation. They share Trump’s story, described by Biden in his State of the Union speech as one of resentment, revenge and retribution, and, shockingly, many of them embrace his authoritarianism. As one supporter posted on social media, “I’m not voting Republican, I’m voting Trump.”

For Democrats, kitchen table issues also include the erosion of freedoms and the future of democracy in the United States. Historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham makes this stark statement about America today: “Historically speaking, the forces now in control of the Republican Party represent the most significant threat to basic constitutionalism we’ve experienced since the Civil war. That’s not a partisan point; it’s just the fact of the matter. And I’m not talking about particular policies, about which we can and should disagree. I’m talking about the self-evident willingness of a once-noble party to embrace lies and the will to power over essential democratic norms.”

The months ahead will be some of the most consequential in the nation’s history, with no guarantee this tense situation be overturned or resolved by the vote in November. •