Yesterday afternoon, on the seventh floor of a nondescript glass office tower on the fringes of downtown Tampa, I sat in a dark room behind a two-way mirror and watched the one and only Frank Luntz put a focus group of 23 “swing voters” through the paces.
What I learned: Americans are worried. About a lot of things. It was a two-and-a-half-hour session, but I’ll give you a for instance. Americans are really worried about education: about cost and competition from abroad, about kids who mortgage their futures by forgoing college to work, about kids who are too lazy to work and hide away in college. They think we need better teachers. They think we need better parents (“There should be parenting courses!”). They think we need to hold educators more accountable. They think we need to leave educators be. They think critical- and creative-thinking skills are the most important. They think we should stick to the three Rs. We should learn from Asia. We should reject the Asian model. There was agreement, at least, that we should do more of the things that work and less of the things that don’t. That, above all, things should be better, and everyone needs to do everything to make them so. And the children, always the children.
And so it went. Luntz covered all the big issues, from the economy (some are afraid it’s getting worse, but they’ve got hope; others are optimistic about growth, but they have their doubts) to increased political polarization (the problem, you see, is that Republicans pick conservatives in their primaries, and Democrats pick liberals in theirs).
The sum total revealed a bizarre truth about swing voters. It’s not that they’re divided on any given issue, with half taking one side and half the other. Rather, everybody seemed to agree with everybody else about everything — and to disagree with them, too. Transitory coalitions formed and dissolved in what seemed a matter of milliseconds, like exotic particles in a supercollider. One minute, Latino Nose Spectacles was in complete agreement with Senior in Blazer. The next, they were at each other’s throats, and Young Yellow Dress had to team with Hair Gel to step in as the voice of reason. Working majorities seemingly assented to some premise, only to split a thousand ways on the most straightforward logical conclusion from said premise.
Everybody hates Congress, but most of these people either voted for their current congressmen or can’t name them. Everybody blames both parties for gridlock, but everyone also wants politicians brave enough to stand for their principles and against business as usual. Most call themselves moderates. One — one — describes himself as a liberal, and he voted for McCain and plans to vote for Romney. There were even those among them, reader, who liked Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan equally. Such people aren’t so much swing voters as they are schizophrenic. It’s Schrödinger’s electorate.
The bad news is that these people are going to determine the election.
The good news? The good news is that they are for Mitt. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. If Luntz picks his swing-voter focus groups as carefully as he claims, Romney/Ryan has this whole thing sewn up. When asked to describe Romney in one word, they said things like “stiff,” “experienced,” “educated,” “accomplished,” “articulate,” “untrustworthy,” “a leader,” “successful,” “privileged,” “question-mark,” and “ethical.” A mixed bag, right? Sure, but look at what they call Obama: “narcissist,” “polarizing,” “trying,” “having hope,” “incapable,” “lost,” “polarizing,” “socialist” (!), and most damning of all, “disappointing.”