“It’s not a simple question,” a Florida swing voter sitting in the front row tells Republican pollster and focus group host extraordinaire Frank Luntz in response to a question on whether Congress is doing a good job.
“Yes it is,” Luntz sternly replies. “It’s either favorable, neutral, or unfavorable.”
Luntz’s subjects end up giving a straightforward opinion—they are almost forced to. As anyone who has witnessed Luntz’s focus groups on television can attest, the results are frequently entertaining and often a bit informative. A focus group is only a snapshot, to be sure, but it also helps reveal, to a certain extent, how people make political decisions.
At this session on Sunday afternoon near the Tampa airport, co-sponsored by the University of Phoenix, 23 voters sat through more than two hours of questions, discussion, video watching, and dial-turning to determine what swing voters really, truly believe about the upcoming election.
Some results may not be surprising: Voters want more details, they want a candidate who understands what they’re going through, they want someone who can bring people together.
“Who’s happy with this election cycle?” Luntz asks early in the program. Not one hand is raised.
But if focus group participants can be predictably predictable, they can also reveal how genuine independents react to candidates, campaigns, and messages. Nearly every participant in Luntz’s Tampa group is a 2008 Barack Obama voter who remains undecided, so far, this election. Some are a little too perfectly cast; the African American woman placed right in the middle, for instance, keeps insisting she voted for Obama but, as a small business owner, was just fed up with how the president has handled the economy and condescended to entrepreneurs. She is leaning toward the Republican this time around.
A few others more obviously tilt to one side. Consider the man in the back row who harps on how Senate Republicans have been “blocking” Obama’s legislative agenda. He reminds the group, in a speech he seems to have rehearsed well, that Mitch McConnell said his number one priority was to deny Obama a second term.
These are outliers, though, and most of the participants appear to be authentic swing voters. One man captures succinctly the sentiment of the sort of undecided voter both Obama and Mitt Romney are working to woo. “My hope is for a Reagan or a Clinton,” the man says. In 2008, he says, he believed Obama, was the next great president. He was wrong, he admits. Judging by the reactions of the man’s fellow focus groupers, most feel this way.
This explains why one of the ads played for the group receives such a strong response. Each participant is armed with a handheld dial, which they are instructed to turn one direction or another based on how persuasive they judge a given ad. The most effective, according to the group, is a minute-long spot from American for Prosperity that features several Obama voters talking about their reasons for supporting the Democrat in 2008. “He presented himself as something different,” says voter Robin. “He got his health care through, but at what cost?” Says Richard, another Obama voter, “He inherited a bad situation, but he made it worse.”
The comments of Maria get the best response of the ad. “I think he’s a great person,” says the erstwhile Obama voter. “I don’t think he’s the right leader for our country, though.”
Luntz’s subjects are immediately positive in their reactions to the ad’s persuasiveness. Several nod in agreement as one woman says she can see herself starring in the ad. A pro-Obama voter can't help but agree that the ad is the most believable he has seen because it features “real people.” One particularly reticent participant expresses his thoughts by pointing to the screen and to himself over and over. “I mean, it’s common sense,” he says, finally.
Sentiment toward Romney, however, is cautiously ambivalent. The swing voters want to know more about his plans for the economy. They want to know if they can trust him. They want to see if he can prove he understands their lives. They want to see records of his tax returns—not, they insist, because they believe he has done anything illegal. “The IRS would have already caught him by now,” says a man in the back.
In true Luntz form, an uncomplicated question elicits perhaps the most profound answer on how these swing voters view Romney, just days before he plans to accept the Republican nomination for president. Luntz asks each individual for a word or phrase to describe their opinion of Romney.
After thinking for a moment when it comes to his turn, one man nods his head as he answers. “Question mark,” he says.