by Ken Feltman
Never make predictions, especially about the future.
– Casey Stengel
Partisan Democrats and Republicans have a difficult time understanding independent or swing voters. Voters in the middle of the political spectrum pay less attention to politics than partisans do. They form their opinions based on general, overall impressions, not so much on issues.
They also tend to run in packs. Once a few swing voters get an impression, others seem to follow. A candidate headed for victory can watch support drain away if swing voters latch onto negative news about that candidate. Former Senator George Allen (R-Virginia) saw his 2006 reelection campaign fall apart when he made a jeering and racially insensitive remark about a campaign worker of his opponent. Virginia independents decided they could not support Allen.
Party loyalists gripe about the role of so-called “uninformed” voters. Partisans complain that swing voters are superficial. But swing voters tip the balance in election after election. How do swing voters see next year’s election shaping up?
What we have learned comes from observing focus groups and is not very flattering to the candidates, including President Barack Obama. Most swing voters are already unhappy with their 2012 choices.
President Obama is viewed as indecisive and unprepared for the job. But you knew that from several other research projects, including many public polls. What you may not have known is that swing voters believe that Obama is mean, even petty. We caught on when other participants in an Ohio focus group agreed with a woman who said, “Obama isn’t a nice person. He’s got a mean streak.”
Does meanness disqualify a candidate?
Immediately, 11 of the 13 other participants nodded affirmatively and chimed in to agree. Once we found such agreement on Obama’s meanness in the Ohio focus group, we tested other groups. In turn, each new group agreed that Obama is “testy,” “vindictive,” “small minded,” “petty,” “thin-skinned” and “mean spirited.” Then we asked whether the participants could think of any past presidents who were mean. Richard Nixon was the overwhelming choice, hardly good company for Obama.
Does the perceived mean streak make voters less inclined to vote for Obama again? Ten of the 14 participants in the Ohio group said that they voted for Obama in 2008. Four of those ten said they definitely would not vote for Obama in 2012. Two others said they probably would not. The remaining four said they were undecided about 2012. Results were similar in other focus groups.
Here are some typical comments:
- “He doesn’t do much to make you want to support him or even like him.” (a man in Florida)
- “He’s nasty when he doesn’t like you.” (a man in Arizona)
- “I don’t like his attitude.” (a woman in California)
- “At first I put up with him figuring he’d learn but it’s too much.” (a man in Ohio)
- “He shows that he has a very high opinion of himself and a pretty low opinion of the rest of us.” (a woman in Pennsylvania)
- “He’s not nice.” (another woman in California)
Among the swing voters in 12 focus groups that we studied, 68 percent said that they had voted for Obama in 2008. We asked: If the election were held today, would you vote for Obama? Sixty-two percent said they would not or probably would not vote for Obama. Twenty-five percent said they are unsure or that their vote would depend on the opposition, and 13 percent said they would or probably would vote for Obama again, regardless of his personal qualities or the caliber of the opponent.
- “I liked him so much, I wanted him elected and felt so good about supporting him, but he’s turned out to be less capable than I thought,” said a woman in Pennsylvania.
- “I see how petty he can be,” said a man in Florida.
- “I won’t be voting for him again and I hope that Hillary (Clinton) runs. I wish I’d supported her last time,” said a woman in Arizona who seemed to convey the attitude of many voters, especially women.
Are we seeing early signs that Hillary Clinton (who insists she is not running) could be a force in Democratic primaries? Will Democratic primary voters yearn for a choice? Will Obama’s ability to raise money scare off possible challengers? Could a Democratic version of the Tea Parties be brewing?
A racial element?
One of the research analysts, an African American man, commented that white voters have been reluctant to criticize Obama. They began indirectly, saying that they liked Obama personally but did not like this or that policy. Now, Obama’s testiness has given whites the excuse to express their unhappiness. Another analyst, an African American woman, said that women showed buyers’ remorse and wished they had supported Hillary Clinton.
Then she observed, “We all know this but you whites and Asians, maybe less so with Latinos, are still a little intimidated so two blacks have put on the table what we all think. That’s probably the most lasting finding this time. Even those of us who do this professionally every day are aware of the racial overtones and shy away.”
Perfection may be seen as imperfection
So the Republican candidate should do pretty well in 2012, you think? Maybe not: The consensus among these focus groups is that Mitt Romney is the leading GOP candidate. But the swing voters find reasons not to like him. When a man in California called Romney “plastic man” participants laughed, nodded affirmatively and agreed.
- A man in Arizona: “His ideas are sure plastic. They bend and morph.”
- A woman in Ohio: “He’s too wishy-washy. And that healthcare plan he put in for Massachusetts was a model for Obama’s plan, right? What a mess.”
- A woman in Florida: “He needs a hair stylist who can muss up his hair a little.”
- A man in Nevada: “No thanks. Been there, done that. He has no foundation.”
- A man from California: “I’m sorry, he’s too perfect.”
- “A woman in Pennsylvania: “He’s Mr. Glib.”
Romney’s Mormonism is not an issue among swing voters but his appearance is? When voters talk about a candidate’s appearance instead of the candidate’s positions of the issues, that candidate is having trouble being taken seriously. Swing voters are tough and they criticize candidates in colorful language. But they are called swing voters because they decide elections.
Swing voters are not taking Romney seriously.
What about Donald Trump? Here are four blunt but typical reactions to Trump:
- “Talk about a bad hair day,” said a woman in California.
- “Trump is a puffy-faced loud mouth,” said a man in Ohio.
- “Imagine not wanting your children to listen to the president speak because of his foul language,” said a woman in Arizona.
- “He’s nastier than Obama,” said a man in Florida.
Both Romney and Trump are having trouble connecting with swing voters.
In politics, perfection is imperfection. Voters like real people, flaws and all. But they do not like meanness and they will punish a person they are inclined to dislike when they detect a bit of a mean streak.