Politics & Policy

Obama the Edsel

Focus groups indicate independents are souring on Obama quickly.

Earlier this month, Resurgent Republic — an independent public-opinion-research group headed by former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie — conducted focus groups in five key House districts, measuring how independent voters and, separately, self-identified tea-party members felt about the direction of the country.

Bad news for President Obama and congressional Democrats is common these days, but these results unveiled Tuesday are simply dismal. Asked to compare Obama to a car, one Iowan chose an Edsel: “Something that had a lot of hype, but failed to live up to expectations.” Another older man described Obama as “a wrecked Ferrari, something that looked great to many people, but was now ruined.”

“In August 2009, [our focus groups found] there was a wait-and-see attitude towards the president. That has changed,” summarized Gillespie. “There is not only growing concern about spending, debt and the direction of economy but creeping doubts about the president’s leadership abilities, which is probably a more troublesome concern to the White House and the president’s supporters.”

Independents said that the manner in which President Obama responded to the oil spill made them more apprehensive about what would happen should a terrorist attack or foreign-policy crisis occur. The Democrats’ traditional advantage with women reversed, at least in regard to this issue. Jan van Lohuizen, who conducted the focus group in Orlando, noted that after the oil spill, “independent women are more pessimistic about his leadership” in dealing with another crisis in the future. “Men were a little more optimistic. You heard them saying, ‘He’ll learn, the people around him will learn.’ If President Obama mishandles the next serious challenge, these views will be set in cement,” he added.

But the pollsters also noted a challenge for Republican candidates in this cycle among women; while the tea-party voters embraced the “checks and balances” argument — that Republicans needed greater numbers in Congress to prevent Democrat excesses — independent women seemed unenthusiastic, lamenting that as a formula for more tiresome partisan division. “Where tea-party voters say, ‘let’s have more Republican members to check Democrats,’ independent women in particular see it as just more infighting, more gridlock, more nasty negative politics and they say, ‘I am really not looking forward to that,’” van Lohuizen said.

He noted several results that surprised him. “Independents are now thinking about the same issues that Republicans are, and their thinking is virtually indistinguishable from Republicans,” he said. “Independents are really engaged, they are really paying attention. That is not normal; usually independents are a little tuned out.”

He said that changes in independents’ perceptions of Obama can largely be attributed to a pair of key events. The first was the health-care legislation, “not the content but the way it was adopted. It was backroom politics, smoke-filled rooms, deals.”

The second was the Gulf: “They really looked at him and drew a different conclusion. They don’t see managerial experience; they started seeing that he hasn’t really managed the crisis.” The focus groups in Florida and Arkansas seemed most focused on the president’s response to the spill.

All of the bad news for Democrats is not necessarily good news for Republicans.

Glen Bolger, who conducted the focus groups among self-identified tea-party voters in Des Moines, Iowa, said that the participants didn’t quite match the common perception.

“They were really more frustrated and disappointed than angry — no raised voices, no curse words,” Bolger said. “You kept hearing words like ‘downhill,’ ‘bankrupt,’ ‘falling apart.’ There was no optimism or hope for the future. They have no reason to believe things will get better. . . . On Obama, they described him as ‘all style, no substance.’ They gave him credit for being a good speaker and charismatic, but characterized him as not coming through and not delivering.”

Gillespie said today’s tea-party voters were somewhat comparable to the H. Ross Perot voters who emerged as a bloc in the 1992 election. “They self-differentiate from Republicans,” he said. “If a former RNC chair sits in the National Press club and says, ‘They’re Republicans,’ that will [tick] them off. . . . We have to deliver. If we say we are going to cut spending, we have to deliver. . . . That’s why there are so many independents who are conservatives and tea-party types.” Emphasizing that elected Republicans have to establish that they keep their promises, Gillespie described the fights over spending waged by the two newest GOP governors, Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, as “very important fights for the party moving forward.”

The five congressional districts in which Resurgent Republic held focus groups were won by either John McCain or George Bush and held by a Democratic member of Congress: Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by Leonard Boswell; Ohio’s 1st Congressional District, represented by Steve Dreihaus; New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by John Adler; Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democrat Vic Snyder is retiring and Tim Griffin — who was Research Director at the RNC while Gillespie was chairman — is the GOP nominee; and Florida’s 24th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Suzanne Kosmas. Gillespie said that during the focus-group discussions, none of the participants mentioned their congressman as an exception to their low opinion of Washington.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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