Resurgent Republic, the conservative polling and advocacy group, released on Friday results from focus group sessions in four swing states (Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Virginia). In a memo, the group summarized its results:
The respondents were unanimous in their overwhelmingly negative descriptions of the economy, and, unlike our focus groups a year ago, these voters could not see an end to the nation’s economic decline. The voting cohorts differed on whom they hold responsible for the economy. The Independents did not hold President Obama primarily responsible for the current state of the economy, although many found fault with his spending policies and raised questions about his leadership on the economy. The Hispanic voters were more likely to say President Obama made the economy worse, joining Republicans and Tea Party voters. Surprisingly, there was little knowledge among these voters regarding the current debate over Medicare. The debate over increasing the debt ceiling solicited passionate responses among all groups and galvanized opinions of President Obama’s job performance.
The findings, of course, predated the dreadful jobs data released Friday. So one might expect the results would be even worse for Obama now. But frankly, there were plenty of red flags for the Democrats even before the latest raft of rotten news on unemployment.
The focus groups included a mix of Independents, Republicans, Hispanics and Tea Partyers. The most interesting and informative finding concerned Independents:
The Independents and Hispanic voters we talked to believe President Obama has the interests of the middle class at heart and understands their problems. . . . Independents who voted for President Obama and still somewhat approve of his job performance — Obama’s last line of electoral defense — did not specifically hold President Obama or his policies responsible for the current state of the economy. . . . Participants believe President Obama has made the national debt worse and view the economic stimulus spending as Exhibit A. . . . , Obamacare seems just as complicated and bureaucratic as it was to them during the peak of the national debate. Yet the intensity on this issue has decreased among these Independents, with their attention predominantly on the economy.
And in a blow to Mediscare opponents: “There was little knowledge among voters of the current debate over Medicare taking place in Washington.”
On Friday I spoke with Resurgent’s board member and former Republican National Committee and George W. Bush counselor Ed Gillespie. I asked him about the significant take-aways from the focus groups. He pointed to the views of Independents who had voted for Obama. He told me that while they like Obama personally and don’t hold him responsible for the economy, “they have to admit he hasn’t made it better.” These voters, he explained, think that Obama “took his eye off the ball” and see his lack of focus on jobs as “a sin of omission.” Moreover, Gillespie said that the most dangerous development for Obama many be that these voters think that “while he means well, he may be in over his head.”
He added, “They are entirely focused on the economy and jobs.” And unlike focus group participants last year, this cohort showed “not a trace of optimism.” For these voters, “there is no light at the end of the the tunnel.”
Gillespie observed that regarding Obamacare, “Republicans and Tea Partyers are very much energized, but Independents have moved on.” The one aspect of this issue that does resonate, however, is the impact of Obamacare on jobs.
Finally, the focus groups’ reactions suggest that the debt ceiling talk reinforces voters’ views of Obama and the Democrats that they are “spending too much.” Gillespie says that more than once the participants saw the debt ceiling debate as emblematic of the difference between life in the real world and life inside the Beltway. They used the analogy of personal credit cards, stressing that when they max out on their $5,000 limit they can’t just bump up their credit limit.
This should provide some insight for both parties. Democrats are kidding themselves if they think they can get by on Mediscare or by flogging the Republicans for refusing to raise the debt ceiling without real spending cuts. Republicans are equally misguided if they think demonizing the president or making Obamacare the centerpiece of the campaign is the way to draw in Independents. Politics is about context, and right now the only context that matters is a struggling economy with high unemployment.