Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
– P. J. O’Rourke
By Ken Feltman
Did you ever feel that the problem with elections is that somebody wins? If you feel that way this year, you are not alone.
Radnor research indicates that none of the presidential candidates – neither President Obama nor any one of his potential Republican challengers – can convince a key segment of centrist voters that he can handle the job. The research raises more questions than it answers: Is President Obama still vulnerable? Why is Mitt Romney having trouble closing the sale? Can Rick Santorum win? Could Newt Gingrich come back again? Can Ron Paul make enough of a fuss to get on the Republican ticket?
Radnor looked at comments from 843 participants in focus groups across the country. All participants stated that they were Republicans or independents who tended to end up voting for GOP presidential candidates but broke their pattern and voted for President Obama in 2008. Often, they call themselves moderates. They are not swing voters. However they label themselves, they are right-of-center voters who strayed from their normal voting pattern in 2008 when they voted for Obama.
Please understand that making projections based on focus groups is chancy at best. These comments and conclusions are not meant to be scientifically valid. They do suggest that Ron Paul might not be a good choice as a running mate, despite his rabid followers, and that Rick Santorum will have difficulties with moderate women. The focus groups reveal five candidates who must overcome significant personal challenges to be credible with the voters in November. What is it about these five guys that makes voters wary of giving them the car keys?
Obama has lost support, probably permanently
First, President Obama has lost the support of this group. It seems that those voters who may be returning to the Obama fold as the Republicans scramble and the economy gives signs of improving are mostly Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008. Only about 14 percent of the Republicans and independent voters we talked with in these focus groups said that they would vote for Obama or could be convinced to support Obama again this year. That is a surprisingly large drop-off. Those who said they would vote for Obama were critical of the Republicans’ negative campaigns or found fault with specific GOP candidates. Many listed Obamacare as a reason for their disenchantment. Others have concluded that giving speeches is Obama’s best attribute; however, they saw little implementation of ideas and programs that were making a difference in their lives or communities.
It seems that the president has lost a chunk of moderate voters who cast their ballots for him four years ago but may return this year to the Republican candidate. Not only has Obama lost them, he seems to have disgusted many of them.
- “Obama is all speeches and talk. He is good at that. But you have trouble finding anything that has improved where I live.”
- “Embarrassing, incompetent, hopeless. He’s got to go.”
- “Remember the expression ‘flim-flam’ man? That’s Obama.”
- “Obama is overmatched by the job.”
The more people learn about Romney, the more questions they have
Mitt Romney continues to spiral downward among this group. Recently, people have expressed concerns that Romney may not be as bright as they assumed. This attitude is tied to some of the comments he has made, such as the ones about firing people and not being concerned about the poor. These participants understood that Romney’s comments were taken out of context, but they still expressed amazement that Romney was so “clueless,” “above-it-all,” “arrogant” or “rich.” A continuing concern is that Romney seems uncomfortable as a candidate: He conveys the sense that he does not understand or relate to ordinary people. Often mentioned is Romney’s awkwardness when trying humor. A growing negative is the increasing awareness among these voters of “Romneycare.” Any good news for Romney? Yes, if Romney is the nominee he can expect support from about four out of five of these voters.
- “Romney keeps saying things that get him in trouble. He does it all the time. That makes me think that’s the real Romney.”
- “He’s not a fast learner and I worry about him dealing with a crisis.”
- “He lost me somewhere along the way. It’s a surprise but he’s pretty clueless.”
- “Romney probably doesn’t understands what it is about him that has turned so many of us away.”
Santorum has limited appeal and may not wear well.
Rick Santorum is very popular among about four in ten of the focus group participants. They are the most enthusiastic participants. Balancing that, about one in three say they believe that Santorum cannot win and women are increasingly concerned about his views on issues of importance to them. If Santorum is the nominee, he should get the support of about two of three of these voters.
- “Santorum doesn’t have shelf life. It was supposed to be about the economy, not birth control.”
- “He may be a moth drawn to a flame, like all these social issues.”
- “No matter what you say, I believe Santorum would work to take away my right to choose.”
- “He was dumb. He will never get elected with those views. We all know that he would try to change things with contraception. It is so important to him.”
Gingrich: Dead man walking?
Newt Gingrich has worn out the patience of the participants. They believe that he is self-centered to the point that he is the wrong choice for president. They have concluded that he is petty and, recently, they have expressed more concerns about his business dealings and marriages. They think he wants his way or he will take his ball and go home, ruining the game for everyone else. His nomination would cause just over half of these voters to stay home or reconsider Obama.
- “Newt is like that dead man walking. Halloween every day.”
- “I came to dislike him as a person.”
Paul gets no respect
Ron Paul is the Rodney Dangerfield of this election. He is considered too extreme, especially in foreign affairs, for these Republicans and independents. They see him as a protest candidate, not viable in November. His ill-fitting suits still provoke comments, with many seeing them as emblematic of careless thinking. Even when they credit Paul with loyal followers and good debate performances, these voters see him as an oddity, on the fringe. Interestingly, if he were on the ticket as the candidate for vice president, he would cost Romney and Santorum votes. He would not strengthen Gingrich but would do no harm.
- “Can you imagine him in a showdown with Iran or Russia? Disaster.”
- “I started out supporting him but he’s a joke in a cheap suit.”
One general finding with these focus group participants is that it takes time for issues and negative attacks to make a difference in participants’ thinking. Take Paul’s suits: Despite the fact that many participants said his attire had improved or was of no consequence, discussion of the suits increased over time, perhaps as a way for people to dismiss him as a candidate. The same happened with all the candidates: One thing, one statement, one impression came to symbolize everything negative about a candidate.
In that sense, President Obama may be in trouble because of one big thing: Nearly eight in ten of these voters do not think he will perform better in a second term. They want Obama replaced. Those who identify as Republicans who strayed in 2008 are nearly unanimous in wanting to defeat Obama. About six in ten of those who identify as independents say replacing Obama is most important to how they will vote.
This dissatisfaction with all of the declared candidates is the big reason why there is increasing speculation about another candidate entering the Republican race. But is there a knight in shining armor out there – or simply another teenage boy with some whiskey and the car keys? More and more, that answer rests with women. We will examine the dynamics of gender on this election in a future newsletter.
A version of this newsletter was published February 18, 2012 by Politico.com.