Denver — On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, in a downtown high-rise conference room lined with two-way mirrors, 21 undecided Colorado voters sit trying to decide whether they have more doubts and reservations about Barack Obama or John McCain. It’s not easy.
The group has been convened by the pollster Frank Luntz, who usually does this sort of thing on live television but has instead organized the session at the behest of the American Association of Retired Persons and the related activist group Divided We Fail. As the voters answer Luntz’s rapid-fire questions, a small group of reporters watches from the other side of the mirrors. And after two hours of talking, and a pre-convention buildup here in Denver in which Democrats have received lots of positive coverage in this critical swing state, you’d have to say that the news is pretty good for McCain. The undecideds have plenty of problems with him, and they can’t stand George W. Bush, but they seem more deeply concerned about Obama than McCain, because they have still not answered the threshold question about the Democratic nominee: Is he ready?
At first, the atmosphere seems quite friendly for Obama. Luntz asks the Democrats in the room to raise their hands. Four people do so. Then he asks for the independents; about 15 hands go up. And then he asks for Republicans to raise their hands. There are none.
That in itself seems to show a pretty significant change. In information sheets the voters had filled out beforehand, twelve said they voted for George W. Bush in 2004, while just five voted for John Kerry. (Four either voted for other candidates or did not vote at all.) What that suggests is that people who voted for Bush just four years ago have no interest in being seen as Republicans now — surely not good news for McCain.
But the undecideds seem willing to separate their dislike of the parties, and the Republican party in particular, from the presidential candidates themselves. When Luntz goes around the room, pressing each person to give his or her best one-word description of Obama, these are some of the answers:
Yes, one guy did say “apocalypse,” which suggests he might not be all that undecided. (On the other side, a couple of people say they’ve recently made up their minds to vote for Obama.) Then Luntz turns the one-word question to McCain:
At first, Luntz thinks the man who had said “repeat” had in fact said “creepy,” which seems a little odd. But he had actually said “repeat,” as in McCain would be a repeat of Bush. But listening to all the answers, the bottom line is, if you were a political consultant, and you had your choice between the voters’ impressions of Obama or McCain, you would choose McCain.
And then there are the issues. Before the session, Luntz asked group members to name the things that mattered most to them in a presidential candidate. He came up with a long list and asked them to pick eight. And the number-one concern, which made it onto the lists of 17 people, is: “Ending wasteful Washington spending and balancing the federal government,” which is, of course, a signature McCain issue. No other topic comes close. Next up is “reducing inflation and keeping costs down,” with ten votes. “Ending American dependence on foreign oil” gets nine votes, as does “bringing accountability and honesty back to the federal government.”
Could those concerns be more accurately described as Obama-friendly or McCain-friendly? Not strongly tilted either way, but certainly not tilted against the Republican. Reading the list, McCain would not be unhappy.
The undecideds also seem to be sending messages to the aficionados of hot-button issues both left and the right. For example, “improving our global image and public support internationally,” a favorite in Democratic circles, gets all of one vote. “Holding President Bush accountable for all his mistakes and failures” a huge issue among the netroots, gets two. On the other hand, “putting justices on the Supreme Court who will respect the law, not rewrite it” gets two votes, and “pro-life on abortion” gets one. (“Pro-choice on abortion” gets five votes.) And precisely zero voters assign great significance to “addressing the issue of gay marriage.”
After the voters discuss issues for a while, Luntz hands out little electronic dials and asks them to rate a series of Obama and McCain campaign commercials. First come the positive spots. One of McCain’s “country first” ads gets a rating of over 80 from the Republican leaners and about 70 from the Democratic leaders. The McCain ad describing him as the “original maverick” goes even higher. And an ad in which McCain argues for more oil drilling also hits 70.
Obama’s ads seem a bit less effective. His highest-rated one is his first biographical ad, the one in which he claims to have moved people from welfare to work; it tops 60 percent. Other ads score a bit lower.
Then there are the negative ads. While most voters, when surveyed, say they don’t like attack ads, Luntz asks the group to say which ads they find the most “impactful.” What follows is a bit of real-time research on the utility of negative advertising. And the winner, again, seems to be McCain.
Most people don’t like the idea of McCain’s famous “Celebrity” ad. “Ridiculous,” says one person. “Crap,” says another. “Really didn’t like it,” says a third. But most seem to think the ad had an impact, and when Luntz asks, “Who thought the ‘Celebrity’ ad made Obama look worse?’“ twelve people raise their hands. When he asks, “Who thought it made McCain look worse for running it?” five hands go up. Advantage McCain.
Then Luntz plays Obama’s ad attacking McCain on the “seven houses” issue. Nobody much likes it; the meters stay below 50 for both Republican and Democratic leaners. After that comes McCain’s response ad, the one featuring Tony Rezko. Republican meters shoot up to 80, while the Democratic meters climb slightly above 50. Asked later, people think Obama’s attack ad was good, but the Rezko response raised new questions. “For Barack to get money from someone else — and who knows where he got that money to get his house?” one woman asks. In general, says another woman, in McCain’s ads, “the issues were a little more clear.”
After a few more questions, everybody goes home. In the end, the striking thing about the undecideds is the problem they’re having translating their dislike of President Bush and the Republican party into a vote for Barack Obama. They’re simply not there, at least not yet. The presence of McCain seems to have given them just enough reason to grant him an exemption from their deep unhappiness with the GOP. If Obama instilled more confidence, it would be no contest. But for now, it couldn’t be closer.