Mitt Romney greets supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at Flagler… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )
What kind of next-door neighbor would Barack Obama make? If Mitt Romney showed up for a potluck, what dish would he bring?
Those are not exactly questions of war and peace, but given the recent neener-neener tenor of the presidential debate (chains vs. shackles, anyone?) they seem almost Platonic by comparison.
Peter Hart, a Democratic strategist and longtime diviner of the public pulse, held a focus group Tuesday night outside Milwaukee, seating a dozen women around a rectangular table for nearly 2½ hours of freewheeling, mostly political conversation. (Note to the partisan police: Although a Democrat, Hart was scrupulously even-handed during the session, held under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.)
The session underscored some obvious verities this election season.
Anxiety abounds. Asked to describe the economy in meteorological terms, the women used words like overcast, cloudy and stormy, though, notably, all felt the worst had passed. Of the 12, all but two said they had been directly affected by the steep downturn. Some had lost jobs, or had someone close to them laid off. Others had houses underwater. Two had relatives forced to close long-established family businesses.
“It’s terrible out there,” said Michelle, 38, who has been out of work since losing her job three years ago at a Harley-Davidson plant.
The rancorous presidential campaign has provided little in the way of uplift or, for that matter, edification. Asked to use a word or phrase to describe the contest, participants offered cutthroat, backstabbing, dirty and annoying.
Ten of the 12 women, all of them white, voted for President Obama in 2008. Four said they would vote to reelect him. About the same number were either supporting Romney or seemed to lean toward the Republican. The rest were undecided, or at least appeared open to persuasion.
The session wasn’t meant to predict the outcome in Democratic-leaning Wisconsin, which is back in Republican sights after the selection of Rep. Paul D. Ryan as Romney’s running mate, much less the winner in November. Even the best poll offers nothing more than an educated guess at an election outcome. A focus group is even less scientific.
Still, the attitudes that came through, sometimes indirectly, offered useful insights into how the candidates are perceived, for good and ill; the messages that have penetrated the crescendo of carping, and the information, or lack thereof, the women carry in their heads as they try to make a choice evincing little in the way of hope or enthusiasm.
Consistent with repeated polls, Obama was seen, by far, as the more likable of the two candidates. If forced to commute 90 minutes a day between now and the election, virtually all said they would rather ride with the president. (Though two Romney supporters suggested they would use the time to talk sense into the incumbent.)
Asked to describe a typical Saturday morning, the women painted scenes of warmth and togetherness in the Obama White House (pancakes — but no bacon! — with the kids) and a more sterile Romney setting (the head of household quietly skimming the newspaper, checking the stock tables).
Many, however, spoke of disappointment that Obama failed to live up to the soaring expectations of his 2008 campaign, even after conceding he inherited an epic mess on taking office. “I think we need someone who’s brave and Obama hasn’t shown he’s brave enough to conquer this,” said Michelle, the laid-off Harley worker, who voted for the president four years ago but now plans to back Romney.
Several echoed the sentiment. Asked what one quality they would bestow on Obama, given the chance, the word that often came up was "strength." Some cited Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a scourge of Democrats, saying while they disagreed with his labor-baiting policies, they admired his conviction.
Romney was seen as nice enough, to use an Obama phrase, though not very outgoing or empathetic, especially toward those less well-to-do. (All agreed both would make just fine neighbors, mowing their lawn, picking up after their pets, offering a friendly wave as they came and went.)
Many were bothered by Romney’s refusal to bare his tax returns beyond the two years he has promised, wondering, as Jody, 55, a college administrator, put it, “What are you hiding?”
The notions of wealth and privilege suffused perceptions of the former Massachusetts governor. (Ryan was seen as much more down to Earth, though opinions of him and his budget-whacking plan were split along partisan lines.) The women were asked: How would Romney respond if he was sixth in line and desperate to board an airline flight with just one seat? He would whip out his wallet, they said, and pay off others to let him board. Or charter his own private jet.
While Romney had at least one strong defender around the table, most seemed to be making the proverbial lesser-evil calculation, feeling the Republican at least deserved a shot to see if he could do better than Obama.
As for the potluck, the women pictured the president showing up with chicken wings, a salad (organic) and maybe a basketball. Romney? Steaks, several suggested. And lobster, one chimed in.
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