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Focus groups report gains for Romney, but overall impact uncertain

October 04, 2012|By David Lauter
  • Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, participates in a debate with President Obama at the University of Denver in Denver, Colo.
Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, participates in a debate… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )

WASHINGTONMitt Romney won the debate and picked up the support of some undecided voters, but whether his gains will be enough to turn around the presidential race remains uncertain, according to Democratic and Republican polling experts who convened debate-watching focus groups Wednesday night.

In Las Vegas, for example, the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies teamed up with the Democratic firm Momentum Analysis to listen in with 30 mothers who are Walmart customers – part of a yearlong research project sponsored by the giant retailer.

Most of the women entered the evening undecided, although some leaned toward President Obama. Many had tuned out Romney before the debate, the pollsters said. By the end of the night, they had more interest in Romney and were disappointed with Obama.

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Romney gained a more favorable image among these women than he had before. But although he picked up ground in a hypothetical ballot matchup, his votes came at the expense of the “undecided” category, not from Obama’s supporters. Comparing the pre-debate and post-debate ballot matchups, the pollsters found that both candidates had gained some support while the number of people calling themselves undecided had gone down.

Similarly, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg convened a group of 45 swing voters in Denver to watch the debate. As with the Las Vegas group, the dial-meters the participants used and the discussion afterward showed “Romney performing well, improving his personal appeal,” as well as his standing as a strong leader and his support on certain issues, including taxes.

Romney picked up votes, mostly from previously undecided voters, Greenberg noted. Few of the voters in the group started out supporting Obama – most undecided voters at this point disapprove of Obama’s job performance. Those who did lean toward him at the start, however, still did so at the end. Both candidates gained some ground, although Romney gained considerably more than Obama.

Women in both groups noted an absence of any discussion of issues of specific concern to them. That represented “an important missed opportunity for Obama,” Greenberg noted.

Similarly, in the Las Vegas group, many of the women did “not feel like either man truly connected with them” and often found the debate overly abstract and distant from their day-to-day problems, pollsters Margie Omero and Alex Bratty wrote. Many of the women in their group “wanted to hear about abortion and immigration,” two topics the candidates did not address.

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Even the Obama campaign, in its account of a focus group convened by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, in Aurora, Colo., conceded that “Romney did gain ground,” but insisted that “the deal still is not sealed” for either candidate.

The big question of whether the debate has changed the overall shape of the race probably won’t be answerable until some point next week. Polls taken immediately after a news event, whether a debate, a political convention or something external to the campaign, tend to overstate the impact.

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