Top strategists from both the Obama and Romney camps are quick to point to suburban women as the pivotal swing vote in this election. Many of these voters find themselves torn about their choice, as evidenced by a focus group of a dozen suburban women in Milwaukee not strongly committed to either candidate. In another one of the brilliant memos that he periodically sends to clients and friends, Democratic pollster Peter Hart synthesized his impressions of the focus group, the fifth of a series sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Eight of the women were undecided; two leaned toward President Obama, and two toward Mitt Romney. The session took place soon after Romney named Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate.
In the memo, “A View From the Frontlines,” Hart concluded that in a strange way, two Wisconsin Republicans—controversial Gov. Scott Walker and Ryan—represented what was missing in this presidential election. Not all of the women agreed with Walker’s combative approach to tackling the state’s budget problems by taking on the powerful public-employee unions, but Hart said they viewed the governor as “providing the strong leadership and hard choices that these women feel President Obama is failing to make.”
At the same time, Hart found that among the women, Ryan’s image highlights people’s reservations with Romney because Ryan exemplified “many of the qualities these women feel are totally missing in Mitt Romney, and while Ryan seems down-home, Romney never seems at home with himself.” They described Ryan as “friendly and sociable,” Romney as “snobbish and would not talk to us.” Most of the women seemed to like Ryan, using words such as “young,” “everyday guy,” “intelligent,” and “risk taker,” although a few used more pejorative terms such as “weasel” or ”insensitive.”
Hart concluded that if the Republicans expect Ryan’s presence on the ticket to turn Wisconsin from blue to red, they might be disappointed. “It still comes back to the top of the ticket.”
Paradoxically, Hart found that “whatever reservations voters have about Obama as a leader, they like him as a person. For Mitt Romney, whatever credit he receives as a business leader, they have nothing but reservations about him as a person.” When Hart asked the participants what Obama would be like as a next-door neighbor, the responses were “nice, friendly,” “fun,” “neighborly,” and “down-to-earth; playing with his kids.” Hart compared that with responses to George W. Bush; many voters disagreed with his policies but liked him as a person.
Conversely, Hart found that “Mitt Romney suffers from John Kerryitis.” He is seen as “distant, rich, elite, and somebody who makes people feel uncomfortable.” If Romney were their neighbor, these women thought he would be “snobbish”; he “wouldn’t talk to us” and “would make you feel uncomfortable.” When Hart asked them what member of their family Romney reminded them of, they said, “in-laws, uncompromising,” “Dad—it’s always an uncomfortable situation,” “an uncle who keeps to himself,” “father-in-law; things he does don’t always reflect his beliefs.”
When Hart asked what a Saturday morning in the Romney household might be like, the women indicated that he lacks warmth or identification with ordinary people. Conversely, they saw Obama as all about family and doing what they themselves might be doing. They wish Romney had the qualities they associated with Ryan, Hart concluded, attributes such as “ease with people,” “relatability,” “laid back,” and “authentic.”
The economy remains the overarching concern for these women, as for most other voter groups. When Hart asked them to describe economic conditions in weather terms, they said “foggy,” “overcast,” “thunderclouds,” and “stormy”—no blue skies or clearing forecasts. Eight of the 12 could specify how the downturn has affected her own life or that of an immediate family member. The pain from the recession remains very raw and real. Talk quickly turned to foreclosure, closing of a family business, loss of jobs, or reduction of work. Hart found that “Romney has the advantage here, not because of his ideas, but because Obama is blamed for the current bad economy.”
What rang so true to me was Hart’s conclusion that the “Romney campaign is paying a major price for having failed to define its candidate more fully and in a more human and relatable way.” Romney’s refusal to release more than one year of his tax returns has created uncertainty over who he is and whether he can be trusted.
Hart’s conclusions capture so well the dilemma that many swing voters have. They like Obama, but they aren’t sure he has done a good job; they suspect that Romney is smart and understands the economy, but they don’t particularly like or trust him. They just aren’t comfortable with him yet.
The Obama campaign has successfully transformed this election from a referendum on the president and the economy to a choice election or maybe even a referendum on whether people trust Romney enough to give him the keys to the Oval Office.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.