Politics

06.15.12

In Focus Group, Independent Voters Souring on Obama

They backed him last time, but now say they see the president as a weak leader. Five months from Election Day, can the White House hear the harsh message pollsters are sending?

How tough an uphill climb does President Obama face with independent voters?

If the findings of a focus group conducted this week are any indication, a steep one indeed.

Nine of the 12 people gathered in Denver on Tuesday voted for Obama in ’08, but only three lean toward him at this point. They are a cross-section of America, working in real estate, health care, IT, and sales, and they’re torn between a president whose performance they say has been underwhelming and who doesn’t deserve reelection, and a challenger they know very little about beyond the fact that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

When Democratic pollster Peter Hart probed for their thoughts about Bain Capital, the private-equity firm that Mitt Romney headed, nine of the group opted out, saying they didn’t know enough to talk about it. Of the three who ventured they knew “a little,” one said “Mitt ran it,” while another said “He did well,” three words that sum up the Obama campaign’s challenge as they try to tarnish what Hart has called Romney’s “halo effect” on the economy. They aren’t biting on Bain.

Video screenshot

President Obama speaks to a crowd of supporters about the role of the economy in this election

Listening to these voters for over two hours, it was clear that their assessment of the economy is not as bleak as one would suppose, given their disaffection from Obama. They generally agree that the economy is improving, but Obama doesn’t get credit for a recovery that, while slow, is moving in the right direction—the core of his message for a second term. A few cited what they called “little things” Obama has done for the economy, like reining in credit-card companies, but no one could cite major accomplishments that would measure up to the expectations aroused by Obama as a candidate who promised to bring about transformative change.

This Denver group was sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Hart’s findings add to a growing chorus of concern among Democrats not directly aligned with the Obama campaign that the president is not connecting with the voters he needs to win. Asked if he was feeling the heat from his allies in the Obama camp, Hart told The Daily Beast, “They know who I am, and that I’m a straight-shooter, and I’m totally in their corner. Sometimes being in their corner means telling them the truth.”

“The whole platform was hope—I don’t feel any more hope today.”

Whether it’s a failure of policy or of communications is debatable, but the sense of disillusionment with Obama’s performance is real. “He set up expectations that began 46 months ago, and they only grew over time,” says Hart. He singled out Jeffrey, a 31-year-old Web designer and home remodeler, as the voter Obama most needs and might not get. Jeffrey voted for Obama last time.

“The whole platform was hope—I don’t feel any more hope today,” he said. Pressed by Hart as to which candidate he was leaning toward, Jeffrey said the tenor of the campaign turned him off, that he felt like he was in the middle of a weird argument between a husband and wife, and all he wanted to do was leave the room. “I don’t even know if I’m going to vote this time,” he said glumly.

The crux of Obama’s challenge is to win back enough of the voters who have lost confidence in him, and in his ability to make government work for them. “Does that person even vote?” Hart later wondered. In his view, the young, bearded Web designer should be in Obama’s corner, and the fact that he isn’t is emblematic of the president’s problems.

While the results of this focus group forecast trouble for Obama, they also point to an opening, which is to “get beyond the rat-a-tat of the present and take it to the future,” says Hart, a process begun by Obama with his economic speech in Cleveland Thursday. A sustained effort, and not just a one-stop speech, could reframe the race.

There’s an opening, too, for Romney if he can build on the general impression voters have of him as a good businessman, and “make voters feel comfortable that he’s not going to dismantle everything we have,” says Hart, when it comes to health care and other social support programs.

Asked which candidate these voters would like to attend a baseball game with, nobody wanted to go with Romney except to have him pick up the tab, giving Obama a substantial edge in likability. Both candidates came up short on a more subtle leadership exercise. Asked how each would perform if they were lost in the forest with nine friends, the group concluded Romney would use his super-duper expensive phone to call for help, with Donald Trump and wife Ann Romney topping the call list, while Obama would give a pep talk and then retreat to the sidelines. There’s the campaign in a microcosm.

For Obama, this was a devastating departure from how voters responded to a similar question four years ago, when they said then candidate Obama would work with you, reason with you, and bring out the best in you. This time, says Hart, there was “no sense of leadership.” These are hard-nosed assessments five months out from the election, and the Obama campaign ignores them at its peril. Hart is a highly respected pollster with four decades of experience. Soft-spoken and generally cautious in his conclusions, people pay attention when he sounds the alarm.