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Focus group suggests State of the Union speech was well-received

January 24, 2012|By David Lauter
  • President Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session… (Saul Loeb / Pool Photo )

As President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, a group of 50 swing voters armed with dial meters recorded strongly favorable reactions to his proposals on taxes, renewable energy, overcoming partisan divisions and defending the middle class, according to the pollsters who supervised the study.

The group, made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents, including both McCain and Obama voters from 2008, gave the president significantly higher marks after the speech than before on whether he will stand up for the middle class, whether he can be trusted on energy policy and on measures of empathy, such as whether he shares voters’ values and “makes me hopeful,” said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Such focus group reactions are “greater than what you see in real life” because people assembled in a conference room and instructed to watch a speech pay considerably more attention than the average viewer, noted Greenberg, who has conducted such studies for each State of the Union speech dating back to the Bill Clinton administration. Still, the reactions provide a rough gauge of the speech’s overall impact, he said.

“The most surprising” aspect of the reaction was “the lack of polarization” among the voters, he added. The speech has provoked a highly partisan reaction in Washington, but among the swing voters in the study, “the Democratic, Republican and independent lines” from the dial meters “tracked through most of the speech,” Greenberg said. “He captured people broadly.”

Not surprisingly, the moment in the speech that brought the most positive reaction was Obama’s mention of the death of Osama bin Laden. It drew an average reading of 80 on the 0-100 scale used by the meters. Obama’s call for more investment in renewable energy drew nearly as strong a reaction, however, said Andrew Baumann, another of the pollsters who conducted the study. The passages of the speech that talked about phasing out subsidies for oil companies and competing with China and Germany for new developments in wind power and solar energy did particularly well.

Not all the marks were positive. Although the voters reacted well to the speech, they remained skeptical that Obama would be able to achieve the goals he set out. When the speech ended, just under half said he was offering “realistic” proposals while about 60% said he would probably not be able to get his proposals accomplished. Both measures were slightly better than before the speech, but reflected voters’ doubts about Obama’s ability to break through Washington’s gridlock. And although the speech moved Obama’s overall job approval upward among the voters studied, the shift was small, from 50% favorable to 58%.

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