Swing Voters, Struggling With Their Options, Scramble Traditional Political Coalitions

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — A few weeks before Ohio’s Senate primaries, Kristen Bentz stood outside a grocery store in suburban Cleveland, feeling torn about the race.

Ms. Bentz, 46, disliked the idea of one-party Democratic control in Washington, and she thought President Biden had been “slow to respond” to pressing challenges like inflation and high gas prices. But she was also alarmed by the hard-right tilt of the Republican primary contest in her state — and horrified by the influence that Donald J. Trump still seemed to wield.

“I’m just getting more and more disgusted with the Republican Party,” Ms. Bentz, an X-ray technician from North Olmsted, Ohio, said in a follow-up interview this month, explaining why she was inclined to support the Democratic Senate nominee, Tim Ryan. “It’s just breaking my heart.”

Persuadable voters like Ms. Bentz are rare in today’s intensely polarized political environment. But interviews with dozens of voters, elected officials and party strategists in recent months make plain that in this volatile moment, a narrow but racially diverse band of voters is still up for grabs for both parties. These Americans are upending traditional assumptions about swing voters and scrambling longstanding political coalitions in highly unpredictable ways.

Representative Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Ohio, at a rally on the eve of the state’s May primary.Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Some are white suburban voters like Ms. Bentz who have historically leaned right but detest Mr. Trump and remain wary of his party. They are still deeply bothered by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, recoil from far-reaching abortion bans and often support more gun restrictions, especially after the recent onslaught of mass shootings. And they could play a powerful role in states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans nominated a far-right election denier, Doug Mastriano, for governor, and Georgia, where the Republican Senate nominee, Herschel Walker, has repeatedly stumbled. Similar dynamics could play out in states including Michigan and Arizona, where voters head into Primary Day next week.

At the same time — amid high inflation, still-expensive gas, Mr. Biden’s abysmal approval ratings and fears of a recession — there are urgent warning signs for Democrats across the electorate, including with bedrock base constituencies. Some voters of color now appear, by varying degrees, increasingly open to supporting Republicans.

“When we see a better economy in the hands of a Republican, that’s why we tend to lean towards voting for somebody in the Republican Party,” said Audrey Gonzalez, 20, of Glendale, Ariz., discussing why Republicans are gaining ground with some Latino voters.

Ms. Gonzalez is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico, she said, and the first in her family to attend college. She voted for Mr. Biden two years ago as a protest against Mr. Trump and what she saw as his racist invective. But she was leaning toward Republicans this year, she said, citing several issues including economic concerns.

Amid still-high gas prices and fears of a recession, Democrats see signs of trouble across the electorate, including with bedrock constituencies. Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For the first time in a New York Times/Siena College national survey, released this month, Democrats had a larger share of support among white college graduates than among nonwhite voters. And a survey, conducted this month for the AARP by a bipartisan polling team of Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research, found that in congressional battleground districts, Democrats were underperforming with Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters over age 50 compared with past elections — with especially worrisome signs for Democrats among the latter two constituencies.

Among Hispanic and Asian American voters over 50, Democrats were ahead on the generic congressional ballot by just five and three percentage points, with Democrats doing notably better with Hispanic and Asian American college graduates than with those who did not have a four-year college degree, the survey found.

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won 69 percent of Latino voters and 77 percent of Asian American voters overall, according to exit polls. That data is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does suggest significant shifts among diverse groups of voters that Democrats have hoped to cement as part of their base.

Key Themes From the 2022 Midterm Elections So Far

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The state of the midterms. We are now over halfway through this year’s midterm primary season, and some key ideas and questions have begun to emerge. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far:

A surprisingly tight race. Despite President Biden’s low approval ratings, Democrats are roughly tied with Republicans among voters ahead of the midterm elections. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll, 41 percent of registered voters said they preferred Democrats to control Congress compared with 40 percent who preferred Republicans.

Trump’s waning influence? While former President Donald J. Trump’s endorsements have helped propel some candidates to primary victories, he’s also had notable defeats. The losses have emboldened Mr. Trump’s rivals, who see an opening for a post-Trump candidate in 2024, and a recent poll found that half of G.O.P. voters are ready to leave Mr. Trump behind.

Democrats’ risky bet. As Democratic leaders warn loudly of right-wing threats to democracy, their campaign arms have been attempting to influence Republicans primaries in hopes of elevating far-right candidates that they believe will be easier to beat in the fall. The governor’s race in Illinois is the most expensive example yet of this high-risk strategy.

Election deniers rise. Republican voters have nominated several candidates who have spread falsehoods about the 2020 election and sowed distrust in American democracy, and who are now vying for offices that will hold significant sway over the 2024 presidential election. But in places like Colorado, election denialism has its limits.

G.O.P. online fund-raising slowdown. Small-dollar donations typically increase as an election nears, but online fund-raising has slowed across much of the Republican Party in recent months, an unusual decline that could damage the G.O.P.’s chances this fall. More alarming for Republicans: Democratic contributions surged at the same time.

“No one is putting their head in the sand and not acknowledging that there’s softness with African American voters and Latinos and Asian Americans,” said John Anzalone, the founder of Impact Research and a prominent Democratic pollster. “You’ve got to fight for every voter, and we have work to do in persuading.”

For years, Democrats have warred over whether to prioritize persuading elusive swing voters or trying to excite base constituencies, like Black and Hispanic voters, and young people across the board. But while the first political imperative for both parties is to energize and turn out their bases, some Democrats increasingly argue that in many races this year, there is no choice but to pursue both tracks. The very question of who is a swing voter in 2022 is fluid, with broad swaths of Americans channeling their frustrations over complex economic issues toward the party in power.

“I talk to families, particularly of Asian descent and Hispanic descent — I find that there is this particularly pronounced frustration with what’s going on right now,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a Republican candidate for California state controller and a son of Taiwanese immigrants, in an interview on the Saturday before Primary Day last month. Gas prices in California had climbed well above $6 a gallon (they have since fallen somewhat), and voters were furious.

“There is a desire, particularly on the economic issues, for change,” said Mr. Chen, who later bested several Democrats to become the top vote-getter in the state’s primary. “Those voters, I think, become swing voters, even though maybe 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have been.”

Kim-Markella Franklin, 34, of Wichita, Kan., already considers herself a swing voter. She backed Mr. Biden in 2020, and she supports abortion rights after having been sexually assaulted as a teenager, she said. But she added that she struggled to identify progress made on behalf of “lower-income, middle-income communities.”

“Look at gas prices. Look at inflation on food. I mean, and I work — and still struggling,” said Ms. Franklin, when asked how Mr. Biden’s tenure was going. “I just know that times are hard right now.”

Abortion rights are “a serious matter,” she said, after being asked how they would affect her midterm decision, “but that’s just only one matter amongst everything that’s going on in our lives.”

Abortion rights demonstrators rallied in Columbia, S.C. Some suburban voters who have tended to lean right are recoiling from far-reaching abortion bans and detest Mr. Trump. Credit…Sean Rayford for The New York Times

It is far too early to predict exactly how simmering voter anger in July, on either side, will translate in November, and there are still unknowns about the landscape — including whether Mr. Trump will announce another presidential bid before the midterm elections.

Republicans note that voters of all stripes often focus most on pocketbook questions, an enormous disadvantage for Democrats in the current climate. Democrats argue that normally loyal voters, frustrated with Washington and the direction of the country, won’t suddenly become Republicans — especially if Democrats can make the election more of a choice than a referendum on the party in power.

Tim Persico, the executive director of the House Democratic campaign arm, acknowledged the need to clearly contrast “what our record is and what their record is, what our plans are, what their plans are.” And he stressed that Democrats were not taking core constituencies for granted.

But he also suggested that Republicans were perceived as increasingly extreme and that backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade was evident among many constituencies, across a broad array of districts.

“Roe v. Wade was pretty popular. And getting rid of it? Not popular,” Mr. Persico said, suggesting that he had seen significant political impact. “Everywhere where it was close before, it is — everywhere — it has moved in our direction.”

In recent weeks, there have been some relatively encouraging signs for Democrats despite the challenging fundamentals of this year’s campaigns. Some incumbent Democrats in key races are outpacing Mr. Biden’s approval ratings. The Democratic fund-raising edge online expanded by $100 million from the last quarter of 2021 to the most recent three-month period, as Republicans confront online fund-raising challenges. And notably flawed Republican candidates have made a number of marquee races look more competitive for Democrats.

J.D. Vance, who went on to win Ohio’s Republican nomination for Senate, campaigned with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia in Newark, Ohio, in April. Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

“These college-educated suburban voters who put Biden over the edge might have really been up for grabs by the Republicans,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. Now, she added, in some cases those voters should be considered “persuadable because the Republican candidates are so far out of the mainstream.”

Some Democrats have eyed the 2020 ticket-splitters — a small but sometimes politically influential group of voters who opposed Mr. Trump but embraced Republicans in lower-level races — arguing that the G.O.P. has become far more extreme since the last presidential election. Both election denialism and abortion have dominated news cycles this summer, fueled by the congressional hearings concerning the Jan. 6 attack and by the overturning of Roe.

In Ohio, Ms. Bentz said she was sufficiently comfortable with Mr. Ryan, who did not strike her as a “liberal-liberal.” By contrast, she said, she was sick of the lengths to which some Republicans — including J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee — have gone on to embrace Mr. Trump. She wanted more action on combating gun violence. And she lamented the contortions some had embraced to excuse the attack on Jan. 6.

“It’s depressing that the Republican Party has gone batty over this man who, I’m sorry, I think he could care less about us,” she said. “They’re just throwing their beliefs and everything away.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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