In the Arena

Dialing the Republicans

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I attended Frank Luntz’s dial group of 30 undecided–or sort of undecided–Republicans in St. Petersburg, Florida, last night…and it was a fairly astonishing evening.

Now, for the uninitiated: dials are little hand-held machines that enable a focus group member to register instantaneous approval or disapproval as the watch a candidate on TV. There are limitations to the technology: all a candidate has to do is mention, say, Abraham Lincoln and the dials go off into the stratosphere. Film of soaring eagles will have the same effect. But the technology does have its uses.

Last night, for example, it was apparent from the get-go that Rudy Giuliani was having a very bad night. Mitt Romney clearly got the better of him in the opening debate about illegal immigration. Romney’s dial numbers hovered in the 60s (on a scale of 100) while Giuliani (40s) seemed defensive, members of the focus group later said…and they thought Romney seemed strong, even when defending his Sanctuary Mansion. (I mean, if you care about illegal immigrants–which I don’t understand in the first place, because I don”t–shouldn’t you check the people working your lawn and, if you have doubts, hire another company?)

In the next segment–the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee’s college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants–I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, “After all, these are children of God,” the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.

But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture–specifically, about waterboarding–the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. “I don’t have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11,” said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

They also hated anything that Ron Paul said (high 30s to low 20s), especially on the war in Iraq.

They tended to like Huckabee a lot (60s to 80s anytime he opened his mouth), but afterwards most said he was too extreme, religiously, to be President. Really, they did.

So who won? Romney walked in with 8 members of the group leaning his way and left with 14. The group thought he looked and sounded like a leader. Fred Thompson went from 3 supporters to 7–and I noticed a clever trick he used: he started almost every answer with a joke and the dials would go up and stay up as he meandered through his nondescript answers.

Giuliani lost. He came in with 12 supporters and left with 6. People thought he came off as too much of a …New Yorker. McCain had one lonely supporter going in and coming out–but the group was just crazy livid about his stands on immigration and torture.

The members of the group were overwhelmingly white. There were two Latinos. They seemed nice, concerned, relatively well informed and entirely intolerant citizens. This level of anger–the topic of my column below–seems likely to be exploited disgracefully by the Republican candidate in the general election campaign, especially if it’s Romney. I hope the nativists lose, as they almost always have in American history. But I’m worried that they may not.