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Solve Our Problems McCain And Obama, Say Two Focus Groups

DENVER--I attended two focus groups, one Sunday afternoon conducted by Frank Luntz for AARP and one conducted Monday morning for the Annenberg Center for Public Policy by my former (1974-81) boss Peter Hart.

Byron York has a good account of the focus group in National Review Online. Luntz assembled 21 undecided Colorado voters and had them fill in lists before the questioning and dial responding, which measures immediate reactions to ads, started. Interestingly, from a list of 31 concerns, 17 named as one of their greatest concerns "ending wasteful Washington spending and balancing the federal budget." Next most often selected was "reducing inflation and keeping costs down." Then from a list of qualities the one most often selected, by 13 participants, was "accountability." This focus group, like just about every focus group this year, was negative on George W. Bush (even a Republican focus group conducted by Hart was) and called for change. But when Luntz asked which was more important, accountability or change, all but one said accountability.

Luntz says he hasn't seen such a response to accountability in focus groups this cycle and hasn't seen anything valued over "change." I'm not sure what accountability means here; some of the focus group participants got into a lather about the special privileges they believe politicians have. I wonder whether they are motivated by a feeling that George W. Bush, at least after having been elected to his second term, cannot be held accountable when he persists in policies, like prosecuting the Iraq war, which they don't like.

After the session, Luntz placed great emphasis on the strong positive dial responses to video footage of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain giving detailed answers on health care, taxes, and Social Security. And indeed the responses were strong. Luntz's conclusion is that neither Obama nor McCain can count on voters' support unless and until they provide and put emphasis on detailed solutions, with costs, on these difficult issues. That's also the conclusion, as it happens, of AARP, which, together with the Business Roundtable, the SEIU, and the National Federation of Independent Business, has formed a group called Divided We Fall which has been running TV ads calling on both nominees to provide solutions for these problems. Still, I think Luntz may have a point. Both nominees have set out positions on these issues, but they haven't communicated them effectively to the voters. I think the field is open for the candidate who can effectively frame these issues his way. Obama will have a chance this week; McCain next week.

Overall, I think the news from this focus group was pretty favorable for McCain and not as favorable for Obama as the negative mood of the nation would suggest. As Byron York notes, McCain's negative ads got a very favorable response, especially from Republican-leaning participants, while Obama's negative ads got a so-so response. Focus group members decried the Paris Hilton-Britney Spears "celebrity" ad but felt it was effective. And on ending wasteful Washington spending, they were singing John McCain's tune--or at least a tune that he is in a better position to sing than Obama.

The Annenberg Center focus group was a collection of 12 Colorado Latinos, who voted 6-5 for John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004 (one did not vote). Some were immigrants, some second generation, one or two may have been descendants of Latinos who have been in Colorado for centuries (like Colorado Senator Ken Salazar and his brother Congressman John Salazar). They were knowledgeable and articulate; only one had much of a foreign accent. Some were strong partisans, a 68-year-old Air Force retiree and a 40-year-old health care manager (you won't have a hard time figuring which party each favors). All have a low view of George W. Bush and one 43-year-old blood bank technician was particularly unhappy about the wa.

In the discussion of Barack Obama, there was little evidence of a Latino rivalry with or distaste for blacks; rather the contrary. The focus group participants (like most Americans, I think) believe it would be a good thing as an abstract proposition for the country to elect a black president. But it's a pretty abstract proposition for these people. Hart has some questions from which he tries to elicit people's impressions of the personal character and personality of the candidates--if you had to have a passenger on your drive to work to get into the HOV lanes, which one would you choose? Such questions elicited vivid portraits of George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. They didn't elicit much of anything about Barack Obama. He plays basketball, he's smart, he's honest, he's a chameleon.

It may seem odd that a man who has published a 464-page autobiography and has been all over the political news for the last year should seem such a mystery to a group of well-informed members of a critical ethnic group in a critical case. But I think the reason is suggested by this posting by Reagan speechwriter Clark Judge on Hugh Hewitt's blog. Dreams From My Father may be a beautifully written memoir (Obama admits in the introduction that it's a bit fictionalized), but the story it tells, of a young man searching for his blackness, is of limited use in this campaign. Obama presented himself to the nation in 2004 as a man who can transcend racial barriers, and the young man depicted in Dreams doesn't seem very interested in that. His speeches calling for change inspire audiences but don't tell much what kind of person Obama is. His polite, cool demeanor in many interviews seems almost purposively unrevealing. Obama, said Hart after the session, "is closer to Adlai Stevenson than Bill Clinton." And "we're not seeing much of him as a human being." I should add that there were fewer questions or comments about John McCain, but the focus group participants did not seem to have a vivid impression of him either.

So the bottom line for Frank Luntz is that Obama (and McCain) need to put much more emphasis on their specific solutions for our major problems. And the bottom line for Peter Hart is that Obama (and, at least inferentially, McCain) need to give us a much more vivid sense of the kind of human being he is.

In other words, in what I have been calling a year of open field politics, the field is still open for the candidates to define themselves--and their opponents.

An added note: By the way, I've been writing for some foreign publications abroad, with a column Sunday in Folha de São Paulo (Brazil's largest newspaper) today [no link yet] and a column in Monday's Times of London. I'm happy to have the opportunity to write for both of these newspapers.

By Michael Barone