In the fight between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the decision key swing voters face is between the devil they know and the devil they don't.
That's the takeaway from two focus groups conducted this week in Denver and Phoenix, where undecided voters wrestled with the choice ahead of them. And it should be enough to keep both Obama's and Romney's top strategists awake at night. National Journal watched the focus groups online; the participants' last names were not given.
"With Obama, you're probably just going to get the same thing for the next four years. With Romney, it could either go much better or it could go spectacularly worse. Or it could stay the same, I have no clue," said Catherine, a mother of a 3-year old in Denver.
Twenty women sat for interviews as part of a series of focus groups funded by Wal-Mart Stores and conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters -- Democrat Margie Omero and Republican Alex Bratty. And all 20 interviewees are strongly skeptical of both candidates.
Obama's first term has left them discouraged and disappointed. Many still like him personally, but the struggling economy, the new health care law, and a host of less prominent issues give them a sense that the president is in over his head. Asked to name something Obama has done well, both groups of women paused, then laughed nervously. The Denver group suggested first lady Michelle Obama's focus on fitness, while one participant in the Phoenix group tentatively praised the Nobel Peace Prize Obama won in 2009.
"He's promised a lot of change, and the change that I saw was negative change versus positive change. So I'm disappointed I voted for him," said April, one of the participants in Phoenix.
And even the favorable light in which most voters see Obama is beginning to fade. While many said they believe Obama cares more about the middle class, some called him a "celebrity" or a "rock star" -- and not in a positive way.
"When they asked him the other day what would you have done differently, he said, 'I didn't tell my story right.' It's like, you didn't get it all right. It wasn't just a lack of being able to tell his story to me. You just did a lot of things wrong. He needs to be a little more humble," said one Denver woman.
But the portrait they paint of Romney is just as bad. Asked to describe the Republican nominee in a single word or phrase, the overwhelming number of responses were negative: Greedy, slick, opportunist, underhanded.
"He is the establishment. He is the white, rich, rich family, educated white male who has his own interests at heart," said Jacinda, a Phoenix mother of one.
And it's clear the Obama campaign's efforts to define their opponent are working. Several women brought up Romney's time at Bain Capital; an incident in which he forcibly cut a classmate's hair while in school; Seamus, Romney's dog; and Romney's taxes.
"Anybody who pays 13 percent, it's because they either have an LLC business established and their routing their taxes through so they can get the lowest possible, and that's really not connecting," said Nicole, a Phoenix woman who works in the defense industry, referring to an interview Romney gave this week with ABC News's David Muir. "We're still in a recession, and so you really need to connect with people that have lost their jobs, and at the same time apply your business sense for future growth."
Those unfavorable impressions track with public polling, which shows that voters have an increasingly negative perception of both candidates. A poll conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal in mid-July shows that 43 percent of voters view Obama in a negative light, the highest level of his presidency. Four in 10 voters have a negative view of Romney -- more than the 35 percent who view him in a positive light.
Their negative ratings have shot up as both sides run hard-hitting and overwhelmingly negative advertisements. Those ads have some people turning off the television, and others tuning out of the campaign altogether. "They're just trying to cut each other's throats," said Misty, a Denver mother of two.
The tone and tenor of the campaign colors the choice before undecided voters, and the way they will make that choice.
"I kind of feel like I'm waiting for one of them to make a big mistake. At this point, I don't know what they can honestly say that would really convince me to be like, 'Yay, I'm going to vote for him.' But if one of the two of them made a massive blunder, I'd be like, `Well, OK, I guess I'm not so much want[ing] to vote for A, but I really don't want to vote for B,'" Catherine said.