For the last couple of weeks, I've been watching focus groups. Two of those groups included independent-leaning voters who don't align themselves strongly with either party. One other group was comprised of so-called Democratic "surge" voters; people who vote infrequently or only in presidential elections. In other words, these are the swing voters that we will be watching closely in the midterm elections.
At this point, however, listening to these voters is helpful not for predicting the outcome of the 2022 election, but for understanding how they are processing the world around them. They are often much less interested in the topics and policies that get chewed over on Twitter or cable TV. Many times they also see those issues very differently than we assume they do.
My main takeaway was the prominence of COVID as their dominant concern. When asked about how they felt about the state of the country, almost all of them replied with a pessimistic comment. And, that negativity was almost universally centered around issues of the virus and the vaccine.
They are "overwhelmed" with the deluge of conflicting information they are getting about the virus from the news media, friends and Facebook.
"First, they tell you to get the shot. Then you get it," said a woman from Chicago. "But people are dying who got the shot. [I'm] scared to get it but you want to get it, because some places want proof."
A man from Columbus, Ohio echoed these concerns about vaccines, saying there's "too much information out there — especially on social media that's what leading to the confusion about whether it's safe or not safe."
"There's so much information out there about COVID it's crazy," said another woman from Florida.
They are frustrated that more than a year later — and with vaccines available to all — we are still battling this virus.
"I'm disappointed," said a woman from Texas, "I thought we'd be in a better place with vaccines. I think we could be in a better spot than we are."
Another woman in this group echoed her concerns: "I wish it had been gone by now. I wish that COVID had been extinguished. I wish that people had listened to science. I wish COVID was over."
A number worried about a fall/winter where we are once again shutting down schools and the economy.
One man from suburban Chicago lamented that he and his family are finally in a good spot financially, and couldn't afford another year like 2020. A woman from Dallas said that as a gig-worker, "another lockdown worries me."
And, they are upset about the polarization over and politicization of vaccines. Many described strained relationships with family members and friends over the issue.
"I don't understand how vaccines got to be such a political issue," said one woman.
"My best friend and I agree not to discuss it [vaccines] because we are so divided about it," said another woman in that same group of independent-leaning voters.
While they don't specifically blame President Biden for these problems — many blamed the misinformation swirling around social media — some wish that Biden were providing stronger leadership.
One man in the Democratic "surge" group conceded that Biden has "done a lot better than Trump" on COVID, "but that was a low bar. When he took office, he met that bare minimum he hasn't gone further; there's a lot more room that he could pursue."
A woman in the independent-leaning group credited Biden with being a "nice man" and "Not Trump, thank God." Even so, she doesn't see him exhibiting "powerful leadership."
Not long ago, Democrats and the Biden Administration were boasting about 'turning the corner' on the virus. They expected the summer and fall would be dedicated to selling Congress and Americans on their big-ticket agenda items like infrastructure and a huge social services spending package. But, in listening to these independent and less-engaged Democratic voters over the last couple of weeks, it's clear that they are more interested in solving the challenges presented by COVID than anything else. Until they feel like it's ok to stop worrying about COVID, it is going to be hard to get them to pay attention to the Democrats' plans on anything else.