The conventional wisdom after the Las Vegas debate was that, in their faceoffs, Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dueled to a draw, or that Perry got under Romney’s skin. In point of fact, when you look at the photos and video of the exchanges it is Perry who has the angry eyes and nervously licks his lips at one point.
There is at least some evidence that among voters Romney got the better of the brawl. You can take Frank Luntz’s focus groups with a grain of salt, but when the voices are unanimous there is something to be learned. (Moreover, given the choice between the media, especially in the conservative blogosphere, that generally show antipathy toward Romney and some real voters, it’s hard to argue the former is a more reliable indicator of public opinion.)
Last night on Sean Hannity’s Fox show, Luntz’s latest group reached a few conclusions. It is worth viewing in full.
First, Newt Gingrich did very well with voters. (He may be the wild card in the race, grabbing significant votes that would otherwise go to Herman Cain or Perry). Luntz told Hannity: “Sean, we have done more than a half-dozen of these debates. But tonight, the fireworks flew. And we’ve got a winner here. How many of you came in here supporting Newt Gingrich tonight? Walked in here supporting him? We got three individuals walked in supporting him. How many are supporting him now? Raise your hands. [A large number of hands went up.] It is so rare that people change their minds.”
But most startling was the reaction to the Perry-Romney exchanges. Perry, at least to these voters, came across very poorly.
Luntz asked the group who won the exchanges between the two. In chorus, they answered, “Romney.” Why? The answers varied. “He didn’t bring himself down to Rick Perry’s level,” said one. Others said: “He kept his composure. Rick Perry’s face got distorted,” “Rick Perry was totally negative,” and that Perry “looked desperate.” Parroting Romney’s line, a woman said, “He knows he is losing these debates and he wanted to look good so he went on the attack.”
After showing a clip of one of the back-and-forths, in which Perry said Romney was the “number one” magnet for illegal immigrants (All by himself?!), Luntz said, “That was one of the worst showings that we’ve had in any of these debates.” A woman in the focus group said, “I wanted to see Rick Perry come out and be a little stronger against Mitt Romney, but he went about it the whole entire wrong way. . . . He did it in a disrespectful manner. And some of the things he pointed out were small in nature.” Large numbers of voters raised their hands when asked if they were offended or thought Perry was disrespectful.
One previous Perry supporter told Luntz, “I don’t think he could hack it in the general election. He just didn’t look presidential. And it’s been that way in the past few debates. . . . He looked shallow to me. And I also didn’t like his cheap shot. I thought his going after Mitt on the one thing about an employee, I think that was a cheap shot. It didn’t help him at all.” With a near-unanimous show of hands, the group agreed it was a “cheap shot,” and an overwhelming number preferred Romney in a face-to-face match-up against Perry.
Some of this may be influenced by Perry’s already negative image among voters, as confirmed by both Washington Post/ABC News polling and the recent AP/GfK poll. In the AP/GfK poll, Romney has a favorable/unfavorable split of 49 percent to 37 percent. Perry is regarded unfavorably by 44 percent, with 38 percent viewing him favorably. Remarkably, 24 percent of Republicans view him “very unfavorably.”
This may explain why Romney’s team is going after Perry so strenuously, first with an outtake roll of his debate gaffes and now with a whole Web site titled Careerpolitician.com. The Romney team sees all of this data. They must have concluded that attacks on Perry are plowing fertile ground.
In a sense, Perry is the anti- Herman. Cain is funny, witty and optimistic. Perry’s demeanor in these debates varies from sleepy to hostile. Perry can’t and shouldn’t change who he is. Voters can spot a phony a mile away. But it wouldn’t hurt for him to be sunnier, more magnanimous and a whole lot less angry. Right now, voters plain don’t like him.