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.”
Starker still: Almost all of them voted for Obama in 2008. Almost none of them are committed to doing it again.
Romney’s good juju is confirmed by Luntz’s most famous exercise, the human seismograph that asks group members to modulate a dial (Every. Single. Second.) to express the degree to which a given advertisement persuades them. The most effective anti-Romney ad is easily the “Bain killed our steel plant” spot. One woman boasts she went online to confirm its truth, and it all checked out. Another woman pipes in that that’s good enough for her (you could feel the eyes in the darkened press room collectively roll).
But easily the most effective ad overall is the AFP spot featuring testimonials from disappointed Obama voters. As it airs, Luntz enters the press room and starts narrating the modulating “DEM” and “GOP” lines we see superimposed on our monitors. “If you’re Romney, you need numbers over 70 for GOP leaners and numbers over 50 for Democrat leaners.” The lines spike past that benchmark for GOP leaners, and hover in the neighborhood of 50 for the Democrat-ish.
Luntz goes back to the group and interrogates them about the ad. Folks like the first-person testimonial aspect and the emotional content. “They said exactly what I was thinking,” says one. Luntz later says he is hearing this in most of his focus groups. People really like President Obama, and what they are looking for is permission to vote for Romney anyway. This ad delivers it. On the flipside, they don’t buy the infamous “GOP pushing Granny off a cliff” spot. They call it “sick,” “disturbed,” “offensive,” “funny,” “counterproductive,” “terrible,” and “tragically hilarious.”
Speaking of tragically hilarious, the veep race looks like a laugher, too. Ryan isn’t exactly beloved, but at least he’s taken seriously. Young Yellow Dress calls him a Boy Scout. The mention of Biden’s name, by contrast, elicits snickers. They call him “crazy uncle,” “bumbling,” “disoriented,” “bumbling,” “bumbling,” “irrelevant” (!), “thoughtless,” “crude,” “out of touch,” “howdy-doody,” “crude,” and “idiot.” A middle-aged African-American woman adds: “Joe Biden reminds me of — really, truly — a drunk.”
She is easily the most intriguing panelist. She voted Obama and is now planning to vote Romney. She’s never voted Republican before, but she owns a small manufacturing business and trusts Romney more with the economy. “I fell for the rhetoric of hope and change, and I’m sorry for it,” she says. She thinks Obama won’t be able to run up the score with black voters this time; a few will switch, like her, but many, many more will simply stay home.
Again, if she’s right, and if Luntz’s schizos are indicative, you can put the caffeine-free Diet Coke on ice.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.