In the Arena


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I attended a Frank Luntz focus group consisting of 21 undecided voters (Add: equally divided between men and women, a range of ages–20s to 70s, I’d say) yesterday and the results were stunning: bad news for both Obama and McCain, but slightly worse–I think–for Obama. Some observations:

–First, these were truly undecided voters, only a few leaners at the margins. They had major problems with both candidates: McCain was more of the same–and this was a group that despised George W. Bush–and too bellicose; Obama was too inexperienced and they mistrusted his speechifying.

–Yet again, negative ads work. The 21 independents were given hand-dials and asked to respond to a series of campaign ads. They responded more forcefully to McCain’s negative ads than to Obama’s. The best example was this past week’s housing debate. The Obama ad mocking McCain’s seven houses was effective only when it focused on the mortgage crisis.The McCain response, claiming that Antoin Rezco, the corrupt Obama contributor, had helped pay for Obama’s house was far more effective–the indpendents hated the (somewhat exaggerated) idea that Obama cut a deal with a sleazeball to buy his house. (And as for McCain’s Paris/Britney ad–the key wasn’t the charge that Obama was a celebrity, but the sight of him speaking to that vast crowd in Germany, which at least one member of the focus group compared to a Nazi rally.)

–“Change” as a theme is over. Too vague. And Obama’s rhetoric has begun to seriously cut against him. “No more oratory,” one woman said. “Give us details.” (There may be a racial component to this, by the way, as some white people associate soaring oratory with African-American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson.)

–What do they want? Given a list of 31 personal attributes the next President might have and asked to pick the eight most important, “Accountability” finished highest with 13 votes, next was “Someone I can trust” with 12, “honest and ethical” was third with 11. “Agrees with me on the issues” got one vote. They didn’t care if the candidate was a Washington insider or outsider. “A dynamic and charismatic leader” got two votes…(Add: When Luntz asked them which was more important, “accountability” or “change,” the vote was 17 to 4 in favor of accountability.)

–What does “accountability” mean? That, I think, is the key to this election. They know that the country is on the wrong track and big changes are necessary, but they don’t trust politicians, or government, to bring those changes about. (McCain’s government waste message resonates big-time with these people.) I got the feeling that if either candidate said, “I’m going to hire a private accounting firm to keep track of any new initiative I offer and make sure that it’s being done as efficiently as possible,” that would have a big impact on people.

–Promises don’t work. Whenever Obama promised a $1000 tax break in one of the ads, the reaction was negative–the dial ratings went south. When he said that we’d spend less money on health if people took better care of themselves, the independents–many of whom were, shall we say, Big Gulp Americans–responded well.

My subliminal sense was that these people were ready to receive bad news, ready to be given marching orders, ready to sacrifice, but needed to be assured that the sacrifices would be equally shared across the board (even now, 12 years after the passage of welfare reform, there’s a feeling that government programs are giveaways to people who don’t deserve it.) The group seemed equally divided about whether raising taxes on people with incomes of over $250,000 was a good idea. “How are they going to spend that money?” the skeptics wanted to know. “What guarantees do we get that they don’t waste it?”

So this is Obama’s task on Thursday: To convince people that he is a man of substance, not empty promises, that he has ideas–despite his lack of experience–about running government in a way that will be more effective. A tall order, I’d say.

Update: Commenters seem far more obsessed with Frank Luntz than with the results of the focus group, which is silly. I’ve seen focus groups conducted by Luntz and by liberals like Peter Hart, and the process–when conducted well–is more or less the same. In this case, I had one gripe with Luntz: he didn’t show Obama’s or McCain’s solutions to the issues he focused on–health care and social security (the group was sponsored by AARP, hence the issue focus). When I asked the group later how they’d feel about raising taxes on people with incomes over $250,000–Obama’s solution to both problems–they split down the middle.

There was some doubt among commenters that these independents were actually…independent, especially since a majority of them voted for Bush last time–but that’s how Independents broke in Colorado in 2004. Four years ago, I attended a Hart focus group of undecideds in Kansas City and it soon became apparent that they weren’t really–they had decided against John Kerry, even if they weren’t admitting it to themselves. By contrast, these folks seemed truly undecided–downright resentful when Luntz tried to push them for a final choice. They were adamant–and I should have included this above–that the debates will be crucial when it comes to making a decision.

Obviously, a focus group ain’t an election. It can’t gauge intensity of support–can’t reflect the thousands of new voters who’ve been inspired by Obama and who may change the demographic shape of the electorate. There were only two African-Americans in the group–but that was an overrepresentation: blacks compose about 12% of the electorate and a miniscule number of them are undecided. Remember this was a focus group for undecided voters…so it was a snapshot of a sliver–a crucial sliver–of the electorate. I thought the results were credible, if a bit depressing…but you go to the polls with the electorate you have, not the electorate you’d like to have.