‘The anxiety is real’: Many Georgia voters dread Biden-Trump 2.0

The AJC poll shows many 2024 voters aren’t lining up behind either major-party candidate

From almost the moment former President Donald Trump jumped in the race, there have been signs that many voters dread a potential rematch between the Republican and President Joe Biden.

But one of the most startling takeaways from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s latest poll of registered Georgia voters was just how many say they aren’t willing to support either of the contenders in a head-to-head rematch.

“The anxiety is real. I’ll tell you, Democrats are worried,” said Lisa LaViolette, a home health nurse from Stone Mountain. “I wish we had someone on the Democratic side who would just stick it to Trump. And I don’t think Biden could do that. I just don’t feel enthusiastic about him.”

The poll released this week illuminated the depth of voter disillusionment in Georgia, one of a handful of politically competitive states on the 2024 electoral map, as the first nominating contests in the race for the White House get underway.

Most Georgia voters have a deep sense of pessimism about the nation’s future, and even many Democrats harbor concerns about Biden’s job performance. A significant number of Republicans, likewise, aren’t ready to unite behind Trump despite his early success on the campaign trail.

“I voted for Trump in 2020, and I’ve seen too much of Biden in my lifetime. I might be ready for someone new,” said Mark DiJohn, a Forsyth County Republican who is among one-fifth of GOP voters who say they may not back Trump in November.

History suggests that many of those voters will gravitate toward one of the major-party candidates as November nears. Biden’s allies, in particular, express confidence that disenchanted Georgians will return to the fold if Trump wins the GOP nomination. Still, they acknowledge the daunting work ahead.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., talks with a constituent outside of Congress on December 6, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

“There’s a long time between now and Election Day. The polls will go up and down, round and round. They will change. We have work to do,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic Party. Still, she added, Democrats need to keep “telling their story.”

“Until people understand they are reaping the benefits of the leadership of the Biden-Harris administration,” she said, “then we haven’t completed our job.”

Josh McKoon, chairman of the state GOP, predictably had a different take: He contrasted Biden’s promise of a “return to normalcy” with conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, inflation and other economic struggles afflicting “hardworking Georgians.”

“It is no wonder then that President Biden is doing so poorly in Georgia. For the third of those polled that say they support him, I really want to ask, ‘why?’ "

A red flag for Biden

The president’s challenge in Georgia isn’t limited to his 32% approval rating or his struggles in a head-to-head matchup against Trump.

It’s that he’s losing support from key elements of the coalition of disaffected Republicans, Black Democrats and middle-of-the-road independents that propelled his narrow victory over Trump in 2020.

In the poll, he garnered support from only about 40% of independent voters and about half of moderates, two blocs of voters who helped him become the first Democrat to capture the state since 1992. Nearly one-quarter of liberal voters also signaled they won’t back Biden.

His challenges are particularly sharp among Black Georgians, the most loyal and important constituency in the state’s Democratic electorate. The AJC poll showed about 40% of Black respondents don’t support Biden, including 20% who lean toward Trump.

Democrats say those numbers are exaggerated and point to concerns during the 2022 midterm that Black voters were abandoning Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor. Exit polls show she wound up capturing about 90% of the Black vote, on par with other Georgia Democrats.

Still, party leaders warn that Biden isn’t doing enough to reinvigorate his network of 2020 supporters, particularly Black voters who have soured on him.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, one of the state’s most prominent Black Democrats, said, “It cannot be ignored that President Biden’s historic transformational policy initiatives have not translated into many Black voters feeling that their individual lives have significantly improved during his administration.

Jessica Leigh Lebos, bottom center, take a selfie with U.S. Sen.s Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, along with Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who is on the left. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“While we have had the unique challenges of COVID, economic forces, congressional dysfunction and MAGA gaslighting,” Johnson said, “I think that Biden’s message must be framed better, communicated stronger and in a local and personal context.”

Israel Butler, a Peach County aircraft mechanic, counts himself among the Black Georgians who say they were let down by Biden. He’s particularly steamed about how Biden handled the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and his response to rocketing inflation early in his term. It’s enough to overcome Butler’s concerns about Trump, who he said bungled the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want Trump back in office,” Butler said. “And I just can’t imagine another term with Biden as president.”

The ‘driver’s seat’

The disillusionment cuts across party lines, hardly a surprise in a state where Trump’s feud with Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP incumbents has left lingering scars. They could haunt Republicans in a state they consider a must-win to retake the White House.

Christopher King, an investor in rural Walker County, said he’s planning to cast a ballot for a Libertarian candidate for the second presidential election in a row. He’s among one-quarter of conservatives who say they don’t intend to vote for Trump.

“Obviously, one vote doesn’t matter a whole lot for those two,” he said. “But it does mean something for the third party.”

A waitress turns up the volume during a 2020 debate between Republican President Donald J. Trump and Democrat Joe Biden at a restaurant in Hermosa Beach, California. Many Georgia voters say they dread a rematch between the two this year. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Likewise for Brad Perry, a Gwinnett County health care worker who voted for Trump in 2020 but said the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection “really put a damper on my opinion of him as a true representative of the people.” He shudders at the thought of a Biden-Trump 2.0.

“I understand how futile it is to pick a third candidate due to the two-party dichotomy,” Perry said. “But yeah, I would.”

The gloomy perceptions of the economy have only contributed to the despondent view of the future. Nearly three-quarters of registered voters say they think the U.S. is headed down the “wrong track,” and a majority of Georgia voters (51%) say they think the economy will be worse in a year than it is now.

“It doesn’t matter how well the economy is doing; it’s all about perception. Most people have a negative perception about the economy,” said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist who conducted the poll. “And Biden is in the driver’s seat.”

LaViolette, the home health nurse, is among the Black voters with serious reservations about both candidates.

“A lot of us are saddened that this country will allow Trump to run again,” she said. “Because if Barack Obama had done one ounce of what Trump had done, we know it would be totally different.”

But her support for Biden is no lock either, particularly given her concerns over his staunch support for Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas.

“I can’t sit out the race with good conscience because that’s just not me. But I’m having a hard time with Biden. I’m upset with him,” she said. “And I won’t vote for a third-party candidate because it just won’t work.”

Staff writer Michelle Baruchman contributed to this article.

AJC poll

The poll was conducted Jan. 3-11 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. It questioned 1,007 registered voters and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.