“Issues don’t matter,” Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and television personality, tells a group of reporters after his latest focus group of swing voters on Monday afternoon.
Having now seen two Luntz focus groups up close, I’m almost ready to agree with him.
Twenty-seven local voters, mostly Barack Obama voters in 2008 but undecideds this year, are sitting in an office here in suburban Charlotte. Luntz, wearing a yellow Indiana Pacers polo and clutching his pen and pad, is firing off questions, trying to extract immediate, emotional responses from his subjects. Frequently, the pollster sounds more like a psychiatrist.
“What keeps you awake at night?” Luntz asks repeatedly of the crowd. Some are concerned about losing their jobs, and others about even finding jobs. Health care costs are skyrocketing, they say, and so are gas prices. One woman is worried about her kids’ futures after college.
“How does that make you feel, as a mom?” Luntz asks.
The economy, jobs, health care, education—these sound like “issues,” don’t they? In fact, the group seems eager to debate how both Obama and Mitt Romney might better deal with the problems facing the country.
Does Obama need four more years to implement his economic blueprint, or is it time for a change? Is Romney’s plan the solution for our continuing woes, or will it only improve circumstances for the wealthy while leaving the rest of us behind?
But Luntz insists these people don’t care as much about the “issues” as they do about the “attributes” of the candidates. To demonstrate this, Luntz asks the group for a word or phrase to describe Romney. “Decent human being” … “successful” … “cocky” … “rich spoiled child” … “not sure he’s running for the right reasons” … “kind of stiff”… “business savvy,” they say.
Exercises like this seem to prove, conveniently, Luntz’s central thesis: swing voters pay attention to personalities, not policies.
The second half of the program, where the group watches a series of ads and turns radio dials to indicate those ads’ effectiveness, offers more proof.
The most effective ads, nearly universally accepted as such, are two pro-Romney ads that acknowledge Luntz’s “attributes, not issues” paradigm. The first, from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, was just as popular at Luntz’s group last week in Tampa. The ad features several former Obama voters expressing disappointment and disillusionment with the president after the lofty promises of the 2008 campaign. The Charlotte group took to referring to this as the “real people” ad, a series of testimonials from voters who don’t hate Obama but who just can’t bring themselves to give the guy another term. People just like them. The ad echoes the themes of the recent Republican convention, which was light on the anti-Obama polemics but heavy (almost heavy-handed) in its appeals to disaffected Obama voters.
The second ad, a new one from the Republican National Committee, takes the positive view of Obama these swing voters have—a well-meaning new kind of political figure—and flips it on its head. The 60-second spot features a side-by-side comparison of clips from several Obama speeches in both 2008 and 2012. Each applause line in 2008 is repeated, sometimes verbatim, in 2012.
“These are the steps that we must take,” says 2008 Obama.
“There are plenty of steps we can take,” echoes 2012 Obama.
“Right now,” say both Obamas.
“To start getting out economy back on track,” finishes 2008 Obama.
“To help create jobs and grow this economy,” concludes 2012 Obama.
2008 Obama: “We’ll recruit an army of new teachers.”
2012 Obama: “I want to recruit an army of new teachers.”
2008 Obama: “Make college affordable.”
2012 Obama: “Make college more affordable.”
And so on. Eyes widen at the repetitive rhetoric, and a few heads are shaking, suggesting disbelief. At one point, Luntz orders the group to stop laughing so they can pay attention and rate each second of the ad. Later, he says his intervention probably dampened the nevertheless big response the ad received.
When Luntz asks the group what they thought of the RNC ad, one woman in the back, who has stayed quiet until now, pipes up. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting change!” she says. The others nod in agreement. Obama the honest broker has become Obama the duplicitous politician.
But the group isn’t ready to dump Obama for Romney just yet. They recognize the president’s failure to live up to his promises, but Romney still looks like a gamble to these independents, perhaps a bridge too far. The Obama ads criticizing Romney’s work at Bain Capital, particularly the charges that Romney helped outsource American manufacturing jobs and closed down plants and factories, reinforced this group’s concerns about how their economic fortunes might worsen under a Republican administration. The ads knocking Romney’s tax shelters in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, too, struck a populist note with those folks who say their paychecks are shrinking while their tax bills are growing.
“Why can he get away with paying half the taxes the rest of us do?” asks one woman.
Luntz says, ultimately, Romney can’t just rely on Obama fatigue to win the small but critical margin of voters represented in his focus group. It’s not that Obama’s argument on the economy is stronger—it isn’t. Most voters, Luntz explains, seem to agree that Romney’s business experience and Obama’s failure in office are reasons enough for a change in the White House. But if that’s true, why is the race still so close? It’s all about personality.
“They’re going to have to vote for Mitt Romney,” Luntz says. “If they understand that Romney gets it, he wins.”