Undecideds Laughing At, Not With, McCain

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From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:

In politics it is generally not considered a good sign when voters are laughing at you, not with you. And by the end of the third and last presidential debate, the undecided voters who had gathered in Denver for Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s focus group were “audibly snickering” at John McCain’s grimaces, eye-bulging, and repeated references to “Joe the Plumber.”

The group of 50 uncommitted voters should have at least been receptive to McCain—Republicans and Independents outnumbered Democrats in the group by almost 4 to 1, and they started the evening with much warmer responses to McCain than to his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. But by the time it was all over, so few of them had declared their support for McCain that there weren’t enough for Greenberg to separate them into a post-debate focus group. Meanwhile, the Obama supporters had to assemble in two different rooms to keep their discussion groups manageable.

Half of the voters thought that Obama “won” the debate, with 24% giving McCain the victory and 26% seeing no clear winner. As with previous debates, however, the divergent personal reactions to the candidates were most striking. And those ultimately may end up defining the campaign for McCain. He emerged from the Republican field as the candidate who was least associated with the damaged GOP brand, the one least able to be tied to George W. Bush, and he has largely maintained that image: a large plurality (40%) see McCain as a maverick, and over the course of the evening there was a 52-point shift on the question of whether McCain offered a different path than Bush.

Yet if McCain has proved resistant to the Obama campaign’s mantra that he would be “More of the Same,” the results of focus groups over the past month seem to show that he has hurt his own chances of winning the White House by misreading the emotional mood of the country. Once again, the focus group dials dove whenever McCain went on the attack, particularly when he talked about Bill Ayers and ACORN in what turned out to be the longest segment of the evening. The audience that started out giving McCain a 54/24 favorability rating (and, incidentally, liked Sarah Palin a lot more than Joe Biden, with +6 and -20 splits) ended up almost evenly divided between warm and cool feelings toward him (50/48).

Obama started off with a lower, and divided, favorability rating (42/42) that climbed to 72/22 after 90 minutes. “Boring” and “zzzzz” were popular reviews of Obama’s performance from blogosphere pundits, but apparently the people have had enough excitement watching the market plummet and are in the mood for some mellowness.

McCain’s strongest area of the night was the issue of energy independence. The dial responses were highest for his comments in that area, and McCain eliminated Obama’s 18-point advantage on the issue by the end of the debate. He also continues to hold strong advantages as the candidate most trusted to handle national security and foreign policy issues, even though the final debate was mostly focused on domestic questions. And McCain is still the candidate voters are most likely to see as a “strong leader,” although his 36-point lead on that issue shrank to 22 over the course of the evening.

One of the most significant factors in the campaign may end up being Obama’s fundraising, which he has used to run ads across the country criticizing McCain’s health care plan. The undecided voters started the evening preferring Obama’s approach 54 to 4. McCain won over an additional 14% of them in the debate while Obama’s number remained unchanged, but the 40-point gap on a key issue is still hurting the Republican candidate.

As for Obama, he continued to win over undecided voters on critical questions: Does he have what it takes to be president? A 38/50 split flipped to 56/34. Can voters trust him to make the right decisions? Obama rose from 30/50 to 48/40. Is he best equipped to handle the economic crisis? Voters split evenly between the two candidates at the start preferred Obama by 30 points by the end of the night.

Perhaps most significant was Obama’s success in reassuring voters that he understands who they are and what matters to them. He went from a 16-point to a 24-point advantage on “Is he on your side?” and made similar gains on the question of whether he would “bring the right kind of change,” from a 18 to 38-point advantage. And while the two candidates were even on the question of “who shares your values?” at the beginning of the debate, Obama held a 24-point lead by the end.

The “values” undecided voters seem to have in mind this year seem a long way from the focus on abortion and gay marriage in the 2004 campaign. Voters reacted most positively to Obama’s remarks during the segment on education that parents needed to take personal responsibility to improve their children’s learning environments—Greenberg noted that the dials went up to 80, the highest score of the night. Similarly, women reacted particularly well to his comments on abortion, but it was his suggestion that there could be common ground in supporting policies to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies that really spiked the dials in CNN’s focus group of undecided Ohio voters.

Soon enough we’ll have election results instead of focus group responses to tell us which candidate will move into the White House in January. The number of voters who remain uncommitted dwindles by the day. John McCain’s challenge in the last three weeks of the campaign is to make sure that they don’t break the way these Denver voters did. He’d better hope that Joe the Plumber has a lot of friends.