A warning to the presidential candidates seeking to court swing voters: This election year, some swing voters are swinging back.
As evidence, consider 10 uncommitted voters who live in this battleground city in this battleground state. Pulled together in a focus group, they were in a decidedly contrary mood after hearing both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry accept their parties' presidential nominations.
In the next two months, these voters want the candidates to drop the flags, fireworks and florid freedom talk -- we're onto that game. Lose the negativity. More specifics, fewer ads -- and more debates.
And please: Beginning right now, start talking about something other than 9/11 and Iraq.
"They can't stop talking about it," complained Sarita Mohar, 23, a part-time teacher and first-time voter. "I am just sick of it."
"Address some of those issues other than the war on terrorism and . . . Iraq," said Bryan Miraszek, 38, a stay-at-home dad.
"I don't want to see four more years of 'Let's fight terrorism, let's fight the war,' " said Rick Dudek, 45, a truck mechanic. "You have to start taking care of other business here."
"The economy is so bad. If we are such a great country, why don't we stay and help us? . . . Take care of us for a change," pleaded Cathy Filipowski, 35, a dental assistant. These swing voters understand the importance of the war on terrorism and the gravity of the bloody crisis in Iraq. But they also see every day the abandoned buildings, for-sale signs on the houses and cracked, uneven sidewalks along 12th Street and elsewhere in this predominantly Catholic working-class community. They see a crowded emergency room at St. Vincent hospital, and the three recently shuttered public health clinics in the poorest parts of town. They see a municipality increasingly strapped for cash, but they take comfort that their city, the third largest in Pennsylvania, is merely in trouble and not in crisis, as is Pittsburgh, 120 miles to the south.
And they see a campaign that, at best, has paid lip service to the issues that affect them more directly than either Iraq or terrorism. So they remain on the sidelines, confused, conflicted and bored.
A Tough Town
The port city of Erie, population 103,717, is located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania on the shore of Lake Erie. Buffalo is 90 miles to the east. Cleveland is 100 miles to the west. Canada is just over the watery horizon to the north. Erie's municipal Web site brags that it is the "127th safest American city," and no less an authority than Field & Stream magazine rated Erie among the top 20 family fishing spots in the nation. Ann. B. Davis, the housekeeper on "The Brady Bunch," grew up in Erie. Bob Hope reportedly was married here.
In the past 20 years, Erie has been making a successful but difficult transition from a city that makes things to a city that caters to the leisure-time interests of tourists who flock to Lake Erie, most notably to nearby Presque Isle State Park.
The city proper is largely Democratic; the surrounding suburbs largely Republican. Bill Clinton won here in 1992 and 1996, but George Bush took the metropolitan area by a single percentage point four years ago. Bush's homeland security czar, Tom Ridge, represented Erie in the House of Representatives for six terms. Two days after he accepted the Republican presidential nomination last week, George Bush, with wife Laura and twins Jenna and Barbara in tow, journeyed by bus to the city; state Democrats promised that John Kerry would not be far behind.
The 10 Erie residents who gathered in front of a television in a spare meeting room of a research firm a few miles south of downtown were drawn from the ranks of the American majority. Like most Americans, all 10 said they were not particularly interested in politics. Like most Americans, none of these voters identified strongly with either major political party.
Like most Americans, they don't always vote. Two are young first-time voters who were too busy and too disinterested four years ago. Half say they're not certain that they will vote this year. They are the true swing voters who do not so much swing between candidates as between voting and not voting. And like most Americans, they had no intention of watching the Democratic and Republican conventions. Or at least they didn't until The Washington Post invited them six weeks ago to participate in a focus group to watch both Bush and Kerry's acceptance speeches.
Some clearly didn't like what they saw.
"It's crap," said Bob Lapinsky, 55, who recently retired from the Postal Service, after Bush spoke. Both candidates were merely "rock stars performing. . . . That is all it is. The Democratic convention was the same way. They are just performing. And they know the songs we want to hear, because they have a lot of people working for them. So they perform those songs. And in the end, you don't know who to vote for."
"It is more rah-rah than it is substantive," Miraszek said. "It's a big lovefest. I think it's useless. . . . It is a lot of hot air. And when the hot air dissipates, you're back on the ground and you have to realize there's nothing."
"This is a performance," Philip Harris, 25, a greeter at the new Super Wal-Mart, concluded after listening to both Kerry and Bush. "Won't change a thing," he said, and it doesn't "mean a thing to me."
To Vote or Not to Vote
Crime drove Harris to politics, or at least to voting.
Harris did not vote four years ago. He didn't even bother to register. "I wasn't into politics. I knew I should vote. I just didn't get around to ever doing it," said Harris, a large man who laughs easily and often.
Then in February he was working out at the local YMCA when a thief broke into his locker and stole his wallet. Harris, who does not drive, went to get a replacement identification card. "When I applied, they asked me if I wanted to vote and I said yeah, so they registered me."
Harris has always lived in east Erie, the hardscrabble side of town. Working-class blacks mix with working-class whites along its narrow streets lined with two-story wood or brick houses built a century or more ago and showing their age. New arrivals from Bosnia and the Middle East add their own flavors to a city already heavily seasoned by generations of Italian and Polish immigrants.
He is living with his grandmother until he can find an affordable apartment for himself and his expanding family. He and his longtime girlfriend have one son, 8, and another child on the way. Since graduating from East Erie High School, Harris bounced from one minimum-wage, no-benefits job to another until he was hired last month as a greeter at the new Super Wal-Mart, one of four Wal-Marts in greater Erie. His position is presumably one of the 144,000 new jobs that the federal government said were created in August by the on-again, off-gain economic recovery.
Harris feels lucky to get the job, which comes with health benefits. Good jobs are scarce in Erie and getting scarcer. The old manufacturing factories that once provided lifetime employment are mostly shuttered. New businesses are moving in, but what is lost seems to Harris to be larger than what is gained. "Every time something moves in, something closes and we lose jobs -- we lose the good jobs; the new ones that come are on the bottom of the pole."
He doesn't blame Bush for the bad economy; his toughest days occurred under President Clinton. Besides, Clinton had other problems. "He was supposed to uphold the country. But he lied. If he can lie about that, what else can he lie about?"
Harris is African American. His family is solidly Democratic. But he is not. He remains undecided after hearing both Bush and Kerry, though he allows that he may be leaning toward the Democrat.
Last week he came home to find his grandmother watching Bush on the news. Harris mentioned he hadn't made up his mind between Bush and Kerry.
"Don't you do Republican!" she exclaimed. "Boy, you better not be voting Republican. Those Republicans have done nothing for us."
But he just might "do" Republican, he allowed. "Kerry has some explaining to do, particularly on what he would do on the economy."
Or he might not vote at all. "Not voting is the last resort. But it's still an option. A real option."
'The Lesser of Two Evils'
The fires that rage in partisan Republicans and Democrats over their respective parties' presidential candidates are conspicuously absent from these swing voters. They see the emotion but do not understand it.
"I wish I could talk to someone that is definitely voting for Bush and get their feeling," Filipowski said. "Or for Kerry. How do you know for certain? I don't see it. This is the hardest vote I will ever have to do."
In more than six hours of discussion over two separate nights, they are hard-pressed to say anything positive about politics, politicians or either candidate.
Bush, more a known quantity to these voters, drew the harsher reviews. "Thumbs down," Dudek said. "He just doesn't impress me."
"I think he is a puppet president," Miraszek said. "He is a front man for the vice president, who really seems to run more things."
David Strawn, a Methodist minister seated immediately to Miraszek's right, tensed up at the harshness of Miraszek's assessment. Bush "is a man of character," Strawn said evenly. "He is a man who believes what he says," even though "when he speaks he is not well spoken."
"I don't hate him," offered Cheryl Beckman, 37, an emergency room nurse. "I don't think he is doing a horrible job."
Even Bush supporters were lukewarm. "I voted for him the last time," said Christine Dimperio, 38, a dietary aide. "I don't know if I'd vote for him again. He did an all-right job."
Kerry drew equally tepid evaluations. Even after hearing him speak, most members of this group said they didn't have a clear idea of who he was or what he would do as president.
"He is kind of aloof and part of the upper crust and out of touch," Strawn said. "He tries really hard, but it's somebody that's acting."
"He just doesn't strike me as authentic," said Michelle Heverly, 26, a restaurant worker.
If anything, these uncommitted voters want something that's not available this election: a candidate with Republican strength and resolve in facing down America's enemies abroad but Democratic commitment to solving the problems here at home.
"If you could put the good from Bush and the good from Kerry together and have a candidate that would take care of the terrorists and the war, and take care of some of the domestic issues that need addressing, then you would have a clear-cut winner, a people's choice," Miraszek said.
But that's wishful thinking. And every head at the table nodded when Miraszek added: "There is not a clear-cut winner between the two of them. It is like choosing the lesser of two evils. It is still evil."
An Ailing Health Care System
Every time Cheryl Beckman walks into the emergency room at St. Vincent Health Center, she is reminded how politics is failing the health care system.
"We have doctors leaving to go to different states," said Beckman, a certified emergency room nurse. "Patients have been leaving the emergency room, complaining of the wait," which can average two to three hours for non-life-threatening injuries. The situation is so acute that the hospital is now hiring doctors as full-time employees in some vulnerable specialties like neurosurgery and cardiology and paying their malpractice insurance.
Everywhere she looks, she sees a health system under stress, if not in crisis. "They shut down three community health clinics serving the poorest areas; there is only one, the downtown office, open."
Health care reform, caps on medical malpractice claims and tort reform are issues she wants addressed, though she has heard little from either candidate before the conventions.
"It bothers me that they don't talk about other issues," Beckman said. "The war is important, but so are other problems here at home. It represents a political failure."
Beckman said both presidential candidates are afraid to deal with the issue. The health care debacle of 1994 made politicians gun-shy of pushing for sweeping reforms. And capping malpractice claims is a no-win issue.
"They're afraid to do something about it. If you side with the doctors, they're afraid of repercussions from the community," said Beckman, seated in a lounge chair in a room off the emergency room. "Side with the community, then the doctors are up in arms. And since they are active and tend to know the people of higher standing in the community, there can be repercussions as well."
Beckman is a lifelong Democrat, though not a particularly enthusiastic one. "I became a Democrat because my dad was a Democrat. I still don't know what all the fighting is about."
She has never voted for a Republican, but she is inclined to this year. A big reason is John Edwards -- "the ambulance chaser" -- a trial lawyer who made his fortune suing doctors. Kerry is a lawyer as well, doubly troubling for Beckman.
On a recent trip, she heard Vice President Cheney talk about capping medical malpractice claims and heard the same from Bush during his acceptance speech.
Their comments -- plus her visceral dislike for Edwards -- have left her, for the moment, inclined to support Bush. "I want to hear more," she said.
Even after hearing both Bush and Kerry, most of these uncommitted voters seemed as uncertain as ever. Eight out of the 10 said Kerry's speech had made them more likely to vote for him -- but six in 10 said Bush had strengthened his case as well. But neither candidate inspired these voters, they said. Neither candidate particularly scared them, though Strawn, whose Republican inclinations had strengthened over the five weeks between the two speeches, said Bush had scared him with his long recitation of new programs, which he said was "Cintonesque" in its breadth.
But everyone agreed that Bush had been more specific in laying out his agenda for his next four years. "Bush [provided] more details in his plans as to how he would address certain issues," Miraszek said. "Kerry kind of skimmed on the issues -- didn't get into depth."
The reaction of the group suggested why candidates offer specifics to voters at considerable peril.
"He absolutely made me very angry," said Mohar, startling some members of the group. She was infuriated at Bush's claims to have increased college aid. "He is lying. I just graduated last year. My sister is now in school. She has a lot less now than I did just a year ago. It was because he pulled funding from them."
She seemed embarrassed by her own reaction to Bush. She apologized to the group but continued with her attack. "He just played everybody off. 'I am going to say what you want to hear. But I am going to say it because you want to hear it, not because I did it or not because I am going to do it. But because you want to hear it.' "
Many Americans are soured forever on politics after encountering such vast dissonance between what they believe to be true and what a politician says is true. But Mohar was not yet ready to give up on politics, at least not yet. The president's comments turned her off to Bush, but not to politics -- at least not yet. She still intends to vote reluctantly for Kerry. "Somebody has to be president," Mohar said.
Others were more impressed with Bush. "I think it was the best speech I have ever heard George Bush give -- except it was a little long," Strawn said.
Even Mohar acknowledged that only Bush did exactly what these voters wanted both candidates to do -- talk specifics. "I didn't like a lot of the things he said, but he was in-depth. I would rather hear someone talk about things like he did rather than roundabout."
Members of this group had heard Kerry speak more than a month earlier, putting him at a disadvantage. After Bush spoke on Thursday, they struggled to remember anything his opponent said, until Strawn recalled his opening line: "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."
"I remember watching it," said Paul Wickles, 52, a communications worker who five weeks earlier said Kerry had nearly won his vote after hearing him speak. "At the time I remember thinking, 'Kerry is the man.' Now I don't remember anything about it, honestly."
"I don't remember anything about it," Harris said. "I will probably forget this one tomorrow."
So was it worth their time watching Kerry and Bush at their conventions? The reactions were subdued and mixed, but several of these voters said they had learned something from each speech.
And would they miss the conventions if they were to disappear?
"No" Miraszek said.
"I wouldn't miss them," Wickles said.
"I would watch them," said Mohar. "But if they went away, I wouldn't stay up late at night being sad about it. . . . It wouldn't be exceptionally life-changing."