Voters Talking More About Romney as Attacks Escalate

.photo.left{display:none;}First ‘Conversation Nation’ report shows talk about both candidates is more negative than positive, which could foreshadow low public engagement in the election.

National Journal
Beth Reinhard
July 18, 2012, 8:37 a.m.

The bar­rage of at­tack ads traded by Pres­id­ent Obama and Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney in re­cent weeks has tain­ted per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions about both can­did­ates, rais­ing early ques­tions about wheth­er the pub­lic will en­gage in the pres­id­en­tial race or de­cide it’s a turnoff and tune it out.

GRAPH­IC: Talk Track­er

The first weekly “Con­ver­sa­tion Na­tion” re­port, a joint pro­ject of Na­tion­al Journ­al and the Keller Fay Group, a sur­vey re­search firm, finds that 44 per­cent of the talk about the pres­id­ent in early June was pos­it­ive, while 36 per­cent was neg­at­ive. After some ups and downs, 37 per­cent of the Obama talk was pos­it­ive at the start of this week, while 42 per­cent was neg­at­ive.

Con­ver­sa­tions about Rom­ney were not as pos­it­ive in early June com­pared to the pres­id­ent, but neg­at­ive con­ver­sa­tions about the pre­sumptive Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee, after zig-zag­ging, did not in­crease over the course of the sur­vey. Talk about Rom­ney shif­ted from 36 per­cent pos­it­ive and 41 neg­at­ive to 31 per­cent pos­it­ive and 38 per­cent neg­at­ive.

Over­all, daily chat­ter about Rom­ney spiked at the end of last week amid mount­ing at­tacks on his busi­ness re­cord and de­mands that he re­lease more tax re­turns. However, the at­tacks do not ap­pear to be fuel­ing a tor­rent of Rom­ney-bash­ing, as least for now.

The shifts in con­ver­sa­tion — 77 per­cent of which oc­curred face to face even as tech­no­logy dom­in­ates daily lives — re­flect the in­creas­ingly bru­tal tone of the cam­paign as polls show the can­did­ates neck-and-neck.

Even with the con­test in high gear, di­et­ing, shop­ping, va­ca­tion, job se­cur­ity and the costs of health care and gas were more pop­u­lar top­ics of dis­cus­sion than the pres­id­ent and the elec­tion. The lack of en­gage­ment is likely to con­tin­ue un­til the nom­in­at­ing con­ven­tions burst onto prime time in late Au­gust and early Septem­ber, after the Sum­mer Olympics. It’s un­clear wheth­er the nasty tone of the cam­paign, if it con­tin­ues, will ul­ti­mately re­pel voters from one can­did­ate or the oth­er or keep them from the polls al­to­geth­er.

The level of in­terest among voters ap­pears to wax and wane with news cycles. Since early June, con­ver­sa­tions about the ad­min­is­tra­tion peaked after the Su­preme Court up­held its health care over­haul and after a dis­ap­point­ing jobs re­port in June. Talk about Rom­ney jumped after news re­ports that de­tailed his former com­pany’s prac­tice of out­sourcing jobs and cri­ti­cism of his cam­paign strategy.

That Obama con­tin­ues to earn more pos­it­ive word of mouth than Rom­ney ““ 37 per­cent com­pared to 31 per­cent ““ sug­gests the pres­id­ent can con­tin­ue to tap in­to a reser­voir of good will des­pite signs that the eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery is stalling. But with neg­at­ive talk about him on the rise, his cam­paign is tak­ing a risk, bet­ting that re­lent­lessly at­tack­ing Rom­ney and tar­nish­ing Obama’s im­age in the pro­cess will pay off in the end.

Obama’s team is try­ing to take ad­vant­age of Rom­ney’s re­l­at­ively lower pro­file at this stage of the cam­paign by go­ing on the of­fens­ive be­fore the pub­lic forms stronger opin­ions about the former gov­ernor of Mas­sachu­setts. While mostly neg­at­ive con­ver­sa­tions about Rom­ney dipped in the last six weeks, “mixed” con­ver­sa­tions have in­creased.

His­pan­ics, wo­men and col­lege gradu­ates are more likely to talk about the pres­id­ent than about Rom­ney. Wealth­i­er adults are hav­ing more con­ver­sa­tions about the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee. Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, the first black pres­id­ent’s most loy­al sup­port­ers, are most apt to talk about Obama.

About This Poll:

The Na­tion­al Journ­al and Keller Fay Group, a sur­vey re­search firm, have partnered to track Amer­ic­ans’ on­line and face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions about the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race. Each week Keller Fay’s Talk­Track® re­search ser­vice in­ter­views a na­tion­ally rep­res­ent­at­ive on­line sample of ap­prox­im­ately 615 Amer­ic­ans aged 18 to 69, to de­term­ine which can­did­ates and is­sues people are talk­ing about and the nature of those con­ver­sa­tions. Ed Keller and Brad Fay are co-au­thors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Re­la­tion­ships Rule in a Di­git­al Mar­ket­place (Free Press: 2012).