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‘Swing Voter’ Focus Group Gives Obama’s American Jobs Speech High Marks

During last night’s presidential address before a joint session of Congress on the American Jobs Act, Democratic public opinion firm Hart Research Associates conducted the kind of interactive dial focus group popularized by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. According to Hart Research, the group was composed of “swing voters” who left the speech with a much more positive attitude toward President Obama’s handling of the economy than they had going in. Even taken with a grain of salt, the study is revealing.

The focus group, commissioned by Bill Burton‘s Priorities USA Action, consisted of “32 swing voters in suburban Richmond (Eric Cantor’s district)” whom pollster Geoff Garin says “came into the room feeling discouraged, dispirited, and disappointed.”

According to Garin, “the speech was a home run.”

“The dial ratings stayed high throughout virtually all of the President’s proposals,” said Garin in a press release, “with particularly strong responses to his proposals to invest in America’s infrastructure, modernize America’s schools, continue the payroll tax break for middle-class Americans, provide new tax breaks for small businesses, and put teachers who have been laid off back to work.”

A skeptic could reasonably argue that a Democratic pollster is going to try and put as positive a spin as possible on such a study, but that’s no reason to dismiss it. If you read between the lines, there’s a clear sign that, spin aside, the group itself was legit. Garin also noted that “the section of the speech in which the President laid out the ‘simple arithmetic’ of the choice between maintaining tax breaks and subsidies or spending on basic priorities scores particularly well,” but makes no mention of Medicare or Medicaid reform, which didn’t play all that well with some in the Big Room, either.

Overall, though, the speech hit the mark with the group. “Prior to the speech,” Garin said, “fewer than half of the respondents felt that Obama had the better approach to jobs than the Republicans in Congress. After the speech, close to three-quarters said they trust Obama more than the Republicans on the jobs issue.”

Whatever your opinion of focus groups, there’s one clear takeaway from this study: President Obama’s focus will continue to be on independent voters. That’s true, to some extent, of all campaigns, but the President has taken a lot of flak over the perception that he’s ignoring his base. President Obama thinks that he has found a sweet spot between his base (particularly organized labor) and those swing voters. His focus on working families, along with the White House’s refusal to bash prominent labor Leader James Hoffa when given the chance, indicate a recognition of the overlap between the two.

His success with indies and liberal, though, will hinge greatly on the details of that Medicare piece. It will require some delicate laser eye surgery to retain the political advantage given to Democrats by Paul Ryan‘s voucher plan.

Here’s the full text of Hart Research’s press release: (via email)

RESEARCH MEMO: Dial Test of the President’s Speech

Last night I convened a group of 32 swing voters in suburban Richmond (Eric Cantor’s district) to watch President Obama’s speech to Congress. We measured respondents’ reactions to the speech using interactive dials. In addition to gauging respondents’ moment-to-moment impressions during the speech, we measured the impact of the speech by comparing ratings of President Obama on key attributes before and after his address to Congress.

 

Simply put, the speech was a home run, and succeeded on several important levels.

 

Substantively, these swing voters liked the President’s proposals.  They came to the speech with deep concerns about the economic situation and came away from the speech persuaded and encouraged that Obama has good ideas for improving America’s economy.

 

The dial ratings stayed high throughout virtually all of the President’s proposals—with particularly strong responses to his proposals to invest in America’s infrastructure, modernize America’s schools, continue the payroll tax break for middle-class Americans, provide new tax breaks for small businesses, and put teachers who have been laid off back to work.

 

The dials also reflect a very positive reaction to President Obama’s discussion of the budget and the fact that his jobs proposals would be paid for. Indeed, the section of the speech in which the President laid out the “simple arithmetic” of the choice between maintaining tax breaks and subsidies or spending on basic priorities scores particularly well. In the discussion afterward, respondents said they liked the simplicity, clarity, and realism of this section.

 

Prior to the speech, fewer than half of the respondents felt that Obama had the better approach to jobs than the Republicans in Congress. After the speech, close to three-quarters said they trust Obama more than the Republicans on the jobs issue.

 

The message from these voters to Eric Cantor and others in Congress is simple: Pass the President’s plan, and don’t play partisan politics with it.

 

The speech also gave respondents a much more positive view of Barack Obama as a presidential leader. In addition to producing much improved scores for having good ideas for improving the economy, the speech produced major jumps in the proportion of respondents describing Obama as “a strong leader” and as being “honest and realistic in addressing the country’s challenges.” The speech also produced large increases in the number of respondents who said Obama “cares about people like me” and “looks out for the needs of the middle class.”

 

In the discussion, there was frequent praise for Obama’s emphasis on picking ideas that have been supported in the past by both Democrats and Republicans. For these respondents, Obama managed to be both unifying and strong at the same time.

 

This session, which was conducted on behalf of Priorities USA Action, focused on the types of swing voters who Obama must win if he is to be reelected in 2012. Many respondents came into the room feeling discouraged, dispirited, and disappointed, but in last night’s speech they saw the Barack Obama they had hoped they were electing in 2008. Their simple message to President Obama is: Keep it up. They saw the speech as a beginning, and they want the President to continue pressing the case for the agenda he laid out before Congress. They do not want the President’s proposals to succumb to political games on Capitol Hill, and these voters were glad to hear the President say that he would take the case for his jobs legislation directly to the American people.

 

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