As Republican National Convention delegates and the media descend on Tampa, along with an uninvited guest named Isaac, the presidential race is very close, according to virtually every national survey, as well as polls of swing states.
Polls can tell you where a race stands, but focus groups often provide a better way of measuring why, providing color and texture to voters’ attitudes.
Republican pollster Alex Bratty of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Margie Omero of Momentum Analysis recently completed a summerlong series of focus groups in six states: Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They probed the opinions of female voters who have children 18 or younger at home and who shopped at Walmart at least once in the previous month—a group that represents approximately 15 percent of the electorate (suburban women are considered one of the most important swing voting blocs in this election).
Omero and Bratty said, “This race is very tight, with voters trying to size up each candidate as they perceive them: the relatable personality of Obama but his less-than-stellar job performance versus Romney’s distant personality but his proved track record in business.” The pollsters observed, “These women are planning to tune into the convention speeches, but even more important to them are the debates. That’s because they are overwhelmed by negative ads they cannot trust, they do not feel they are getting enough facts to make an informed choice, and they do not feel like either candidate is really connecting with them on the issues that matter most: the economy, education, and health care.”
Asked to describe their feelings toward Obama, the focus-group moms came up with words such as “disappointed,” “dissatisfied,” and “unhappy.” About Romney, the pollsters say, the women admired his business record but “worry about how little they know about him.… These moms do not feel much of a personal connection to him.” They called him “polished,” “slick,” and “out of touch.” They do not get the impression that he understands the middle class.
These focus groups, along with a body of previous research, illuminate the challenge that Romney faces this week in Tampa. The Walmart moms say they look forward to the debates, but while such exchanges are opportunities to demonstrate intelligence and command of the issues, they are not particularly helpful in connecting with voters personally. The Romney campaign should have done that through advertising—starting in the primaries but even more so as soon as he clinched the nomination. Instead, the campaign decided to wait until the convention, only to find that reduced levels of broadcast network coverage (a trend that began years ago and was totally predictable) and a hurricane (which, again, has happened before) has narrowed their convention window for connecting their candidate to voters on a personal level.
In short, this is the last relatively clean shot that the Romney campaign has to make swing voters more comfortable with its candidate and to give these voters, who are open to change but feel they don’t yet know or trust Romney, a sense of who he is—particularly those in swing states who have been deluged with negative ads assaulting his character.