CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Swing voters under the microscope in a focus group here this week were asked to supply a single word or phrase that sums up how they see Barack Obama.
And although 24 of the 27 North Carolinians in the room voted for Obama four years ago, here’s what they came up with: “Machine-like,” “appeaser,” “incompetent,” “uncertain,” “salesman” and “arrogant.” There were only a few less-searing assessments, including “multi-tasking,” and “negotiator to no avail.” Just two of the 27 told GOP message-tester Frank Luntz that Obama has succeeded in his first term. So, should the word that sums up our Democratic president’s chances here in North Carolina, where he narrowly won in 2008, be “un-bloomin’-likely”?
You’d think so. Unless, that is, you heard what words these voters associate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney: “Elitist,” “silver spoon,” “unaware,” “rich,” “spoiled,” and “self-serving.” Romney did draw a few sunnier responses: Several people went with the phrase “business savvy,” one said “decent,” and another “likeable.” Not mentioned once: “Mormon.”
These undecided voters were not only unsold on either candidate, but were evenly divided on whether their dream POTUS would be a bipartisan conciliator or a tough guy. They don't want gridlock, but don’t want either party in unchecked control of the Congress and White House, either. The most poignant, and maybe most representative, response to the question of what voters really want was this: “Guarantees,’’ one said. And lots of Easter eggs?
They blame some of their negative feelings about the candidates on the media, and the biggest laugh of the afternoon came when Luntz asked the group to describe those of us in the news business. Along with the usual compliments — “biased,” “liberal,” “pushy” and ”overbearing” — one woman said “enjoying their wealth,’’ and the reporters watching the exercise from behind a two-way mirror guffawed so loudly that the focus group heard us, and had to laugh along.
But I have a few words for the chronically undecided, too: inconsistent, unrealistic, and waiting for Santa Claus. One woman said her husband was making twice what he used to, but resented paying more for gasoline under Obama. Yesterday I supported the president, another woman said, but today, no.
In many cases, they even seem to be fooling themselves about being undecided — a point Luntz made by laughingly taking on a man in the group who had many complaints about Obama , a slew of compliments for Romney, yet insisted that he didn’t know how he’d vote in the end.
Luntz also called members of the focus group, sponsored by the University of Phoenix, a bunch of hypocrites: “Almost half of you didn’t watch [Romney’s Tampa acceptance] speech and you’re telling me you want more information?”
No wonder both campaigns are working harder to turn out the base than to win over this lot of flip-floppers.
When Luntz showed them a variety of campaign ads, they reacted most negatively to a Democratic ad that showed Republicans walking on people, literally. “Tacky,’’ one woman said. Most effective was a Republican ad that showed Obama using many of the same lines in ’08 and ‘12, as if he’d learned nothing in the interim.
Luntz pointed to the group’s preference for kinder, gentler commercials as proof his fellow Republicans should knock off the ads with scary music. But again, no wonder both parties are running more turn-out-the-base pitches, especially given that fewer than 1 in 10 voters are still up for grabs, even if at a certain point, the negative ads do cancel each other out.
At the end of the 21 / 2-hour exercise, 11 of the voters said they were still undecided, seven said they were going with Obama and nine with Romney.
One of the Obama supporters, Anita Furr, a former administrator in the computer software business, lost her job two years ago and considers herself retired at age 64, although not by choice. She doesn’t blame Obama for her situation, though, and thinks “it will take Romney as long or longer, starting fresh.”
That “why change horses mid-stream?” argument is one George W. Bush supporters made often in ‘04 -- the year Democratic nominee John Kerry did, as Luntz says, convince voters that Bush hadn’t earned re-election, but never did convince them he should be the alternative.
Mitt Romney has yet to do that, too, just as Obama has yet to prove he deserves another four-year contract with the American people. But I don’t see the president ever satisfying these swing voters. Nor, thank goodness, will he tell them what they want to hear this week by confessing he hasn’t measured up and promising to do better.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.