When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met for their first debate one week ago, we were there — in the swing-voting state of Colorado — to track voters’ opinions during the debate.
Based on dials that voters used to register their real-time reactions and post-debate interviews, the results of our research were lackluster, at least for the president. During the debate, the dial lines fell flat when the president emphasized the progress his administration had made over the last four years.
By contrast, Romney performed well among independents when he talked about his plans for the future and the middle class. In our post-debate focus groups, voters told us they were “surprised” by Mitt Romney and “confused” by the president.
This was a different Barack Obama (and definitely a different Mitt Romney) than we had observed in September. Following the party conventions, our tracking showed stronger margins for President Obama, although the race remained close. And then Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video suddenly appeared on the Mother Jones website. For many voters, this footage really changed the choice and the stakes. We saw the poll numbers move decisively in Obama’s direction and against Romney.
On the eve of the first debate, half of all voters (50 percent) gave Mitt Romney a negative rating and the president took a commanding lead on the ballot—leading by 7 points nationally and 6 points in the battleground states. More voters said they trusted Obama on key attributes that predict their choices—focusing on issues important to ordinary people and making the right decisions to address big national problems—and he had pulled even with Romney on issues where he had previously trailed, including the economy.
But the trend in the polls has changed course in the week since the debate. What happened? In the first debate, the president touched on none of the themes that had fortified his lead in the post-convention period—focusing on the future, emphasizing economic policies that build the middle class, and clarifying the choice over the “47 percent,” which Bill Clinton had summed up at the convention: Democrats believe “we’re in this together”; Republicans say, “you are on your own.” In many ways, Obama let Romney own the future and the middle class in the first debate.
We saw the results on the dial lines in Denver. And we have begun to see the impact in the polls. To win over swing voters and energize his base to turn out, the president needs to speak to these themes clearly, meaningfully, and emphatically. He needs to stand up for, and advocate policies to advance, the so-called “47 percent.”
The “47 percent” theme works because voters believe that if it was more than a simple gaffe, it revealed something important about Romney. It also works because Democrats can offer a powerful contrast: Medicare, Social Security, taxes, and a political outlook that rejects the “you’re on your own” economics advanced by Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Congressional Republicans.
Barack Obama has the chance to make this election about a country and an economy that works for all Americans. If he does that, Mitt Romney will not win.
Why is the “47 percent” so powerful? Our extensive research shows that voters—the elderly on Social Security, unmarried women, young people, veterans, the working poor, and even those in the middle class—strongly identify with the “47 percent.” During focus groups in both Columbus, Ohio and Fairfax, Virginia, participants instantly identified with the “47 percent.” When asked about Mitt Romney’s comment on the “47 percent,” participants quickly responded with disgust and then explained, “he’s talking about me.”
It’s hurtful. I am probably one of them 47 percent. By speaking of that 47 percent, he’s probably never been in that 47 percent… I work and pay my taxes. I wake up at 4:30 every morning, feed my kids and go to work. (Swing voter, Columbus, OH)
He’s putting me down. (Swing voter, Columbus, OH)
[He’s talking about] us. Probably everyone in this room. (Columbus, OH)
I’ve worked and I paid into that Social Security. I started working at 15. I paid into that. (Columbus, OH)
[The 47 percent is] us. Normal people. Who may have jobs, who need some assistance. (Columbus, OH)
There are a lot of people out of work who can’t find jobs. I spent 8 to 10 hours a day looking, and the state of Virginia doesn’t really provide a huge amount of unemployment insurance. And hearing from some people in the media and politicians saying they are lazy, it’s not true. (Fairfax, VA)
And these same voters expressed disgust at Romney’s inability to understand middle class and working people’s everyday realities.
The tone is so accusatory and so demeaning. Rather than talking about helping people. It’s not about lifting them up, it’s about dropping them down. (Columbus, OH)
Where’s the compassion? (Columbus, OH)
He doesn’t know who those 47 percent are. Most of them are working people, the working poor, they get up and go to work every day. (Columbus, OH)
Using the word ‘entitled.’ I hate that word. He makes 47 percent sound like spoiled brats who sit at home and do nothing. It shouldn’t be a dirty word but it is. That word really got to me. Like these people are so entitled. (Columbus, OH)
My mom was embarrassed to use food stamps. If she wouldn’t have had them, she wouldn’t have eaten. The woman couldn’t help it. It just bothered me that yes, it was a safety net, but she had enough going on that she didn’t need more problems. She was never comfortable with it, ever. (Columbus, OH)
These people feel they are entitled to food?! To housing?! These stupid stupid poor people feel they are entitled to food! Shame on them! (Fairfax, VA)
He is saying he doesn’t care. It makes you take a step further—does he care about anyone at all? (Unmarried woman, Fairfax, VA)
And these voters were especially upset when they thought about it in terms of their elderly parents and relatives on Medicare and Social Security, or students who need loans to pay for education, or those who are disabled and require some assistance just to get by.
A lot of them are retired. After my dad died, we had to get my mom food stamps. That’s 20% of the 47. (Columbus, OH)
Who are the people who pay no income tax? You could be a student and pay none. Or an elderly person on Social Security. (Fairfax, VA)
They aren’t all people in poverty. There’s middle class people. People on disability. Veterans. It’s not a lot of people cheating off the system. It’s a lot of people. (Columbus, OH)
To come back strong, the president must address future policy choices in a much bolder way—and he must make this election about choosing a country that stands up for and elevates the 47 percent versus a country that tells its seniors, veterans, the working poor, the disabled, and, yes, the struggling middle class: “You are on your own.”