Resurgent Republic sponsored a series of focus groups in June in four battleground states: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. We measured voter sentiments on the current state of the economy, increasing the debt ceiling, and the debate over Medicare. We also probed voter opinion regarding President Obama’s handling of the economy and whether voters believe President Obama has put forward the right policies to spur job growth.
Independent voters’ growing disapproval of President Obama’s policies has been well documented by Resurgent Republic dating back to April 2009. The majority of Independents in this focus group series represent a specific segment of swing voters: Independents who voted for Obama and still somewhat approve of his job performance. These voters comprise President Obama’s last line of electoral defense.
Of the 41 registered or self-identified Independents in our groups, 31 supported President Obama in 2008 and 26 approve of his job performance today while 12 disapprove and 3 are unsure. All are undecided on the 2012 generic presidential ballot. In addition to swing voters, this series included separate focus groups with Hispanics, Soft Republicans, Strong Republicans, and Tea Party voters.
The respondents were unanimous in their overwhelmingly negative descriptions of the economy, and unlike our focus groups a year ago, these voters could not see an end to the nation’s economic decline. The voting cohorts differed on whom they hold responsible for the economy. The Independents did not hold President Obama primarily responsible for the current state of the economy, although many found fault with his spending policies and raised questions about his leadership on the economy. The Hispanic voters were more likely to say President Obama made the economy worse, joining Republicans and Tea Party voters. Surprisingly, there was little knowledge among these voters regarding the current debate over Medicare. The debate over increasing the debt ceiling solicited passionate responses among all groups and galvanized opinions of President Obama’s job performance.
In both language and emotion, focus group participants were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the economy.
Each voting cohort – Independents, Hispanics, Republicans, and Tea Party voters – described the economy in highly negative terms, volunteering adjectives like “depressing,” “unstable,” “upside down,” “scary,” “frightening,” “terrifying,” and “hurting.”
These voters pushed back on any language that downplayed the economic crisis or asserted a gradual improvement is underway. Instead of the economic crisis being a “bump in the road,” one voter said it was more like a mountain and another questioned if the country still remained on the road. To these voters, the economic struggle is personal and a daily threat to their families and quality of life.
Unlike our focus groups conducted last June, these voters see no end in sight to the adverse economic conditions plaguing the country.
In our focus group series last June, we concluded, “despite overall disapproval, Independents returned to a somewhat optimistic belief that that direction of the country will soon get better.” One year later, these Independent voters uniformly expressed pessimism and could not see a light at the end of the tunnel. When given an opportunity to point to any reason for optimism, they largely remained silent. One Independent female in Pennsylvania stated, “I hope it’s coming, but there’s nothing to point to.”
Unemployment, underemployment, and declining home values are conditions that directly affected many of these voters or people they know. High gas prices solicited voter ire in all the groups, although Independents and Republicans differed on whom they hold primarily responsible for the increase, with Republicans blaming Obama and Independents citing oil companies. Both the Republican base and Tea Party voters were highly motivated on economic and spending issues. All respondents in these groups disapproved of how President Obama is handling the economy, using descriptions like “inexperienced” and “in over his head.”
Voters found the presentation of economic figures since President Obama took office persuasive and factual.
All respondents reviewed the trend line of President Obama’s economic record since taking office. Despite their uniform belief that the economy was in very bad shape, these statistics magnified their pessimistic outlook. The following figures were most sobering: 2.5 million jobs lost, an increase in the national debt from $10.6 trillion to over $14 trillion, the amount of debt per person, debt held by China, borrowing 43 cents on the dollar, record annual deficits, and the rise in gasoline prices.
After pondering the magnitude of these economic figures, many of the Independents and Republicans had a similar reaction. One senior Independent female in Florida concluded, “It’s a punch in the face.” A Republican female in Virginia despondently said, “I just want to cry.” Multiple participants across the groups noted that the jobless rate was actually bleaker than reported since national unemployment (9.1 percent at the time) does not account for the many who are underemployed or those who have abandoned the job market.
Despite certain policy criticisms, these Independents and Hispanics tended to view President Obama as a likable person.
The Independents and Hispanic voters we talked to believe President Obama has the interests of the middle class at heart and understands their problems. However, in light of the deep concerns these voters hold on the economy, it’s unlikely that any sense of personal affinity toward President Obama will outweigh pocketbook issues as 2012 nears.
Critiques of President Obama’s leadership have moved beyond the Republican base and resonate among the Independents in our groups.
“He’s voiced leadership, he just hasn’t shown it,” said one senior Independent female in Florida. The theme that President Obama needs to “follow through” on his rhetoric was common in both Independent groups. President Obama’s strength of being an effective communicator has the potential of reinforcing voters’ appetite for more than rhetoric. Participants could not name an economic accomplishment and did not believe President Obama has a plan to create jobs or to solve the financial problems of Medicare. Voters give President Obama credit for killing Osama bin Laden, but that event did not bolster his leadership standing on domestic issues.
Following our State of the Union dial test and focus group in Ohio, we noted that before President Obama can make any permanent gains among Independents, “swing voters will want to see a tangible policy shift implemented.” That analysis is just as relevant six months later. The challenge for those who oppose President Obama’s policies is how to move these Independents from skeptical to negative, or in other words, from seeing Obama as failing to lead to leading in the wrong direction. If these Independents remain skeptical, however, their interest in the national debate could decrease to the point that some neglect to turnout next November.
Independents and Hispanic voters differed in the degree they hold President Obama or his polices responsible for the current state of the economy.
Independents who voted for President Obama and still somewhat approve of his job performance – Obama’s last line of electoral defense – did not specifically hold President Obama or his policies responsible for the current state of the economy. There was a common sentiment that President Obama inherited the economic problems. They give him credit for trying and believe his “heart is in the right place.”
While this news will be welcomed by those who support President Obama, it should be disconcerting that these same voters did not believe President Obama has a plan to grow the economy and struggled to name a specific economic achievement, a clear warning for those doubling down on the more than $800 billion economic stimulus package or passage of the health care reform bill.
Not surprisingly, Republicans and Tea Party voters hold Obama responsible for making the economy worse. For example, strong Republicans and Tea Party voters in Virginia Beach linked the rise in gasoline prices to the Obama Administration’s moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
More significant politically, the Hispanic voters in our Colorado focus group believed President Obama has made the economy worse even as they faulted the previous Administration and the housing crisis. These voters give President Obama credit for trying to fix the economy but believe he has failed to live up to his own promises to turn the country around. Their critique of President Obama’s handling of the economy sharpened when discussing fiscal issues, especially the growing national debt and job creation. One Hispanic male who voted for Obama in 2008 summarized President Obama’s economic policies as “printing money.” These voters largely believed the economic stimulus failed to create jobs, with some going as far to say the economic stimulus made things worse.
President Obama’s request that Congress raise the debt ceiling galvanizes their critique of his spending policies.
Participants believe President Obama has made the national debt worse and view the economic stimulus spending as Exhibit A. The Independents and Hispanic voters were shocked to hear the statement then-Senator Obama made in 2006 when he voted against raising the debt ceiling. One Pennsylvania Independent female who voted for Obama said, “someone should read that [statement] back to him.” Other participants excused the remarks as simply politics as usual, but that admission reveals how President Obama no longer carries the post-partisan mantle among these voters. The debt limit debate has the potential to further weakening support among Obama Independents.
The debate over raising the debt ceiling stokes voter ire because participants see it as an example of Washington playing by a different set of rules.
Many respondents mentioned how the weak economy has forced them to make very tough financial decisions, from searching for secondary employment to cutting back on the family budget. Several participants used the analogy of a personal credit card, noting they can’t arbitrarily raise their personal borrowing limit. Instilling financial discipline – in their personal life and in Washington – means cutting up a maxed-out credit card, according to the participants.
In both Pennsylvania and Florida, Independent women were able to cite very personal and specific reasons as to why raising the debt ceiling angered them. They saw the impact the mounting debt will have in hindering the aspirations of future generations, increasing taxes, and decreasing the quality of education. The Independent men voiced equally strong disapproval of Washington’s out-of-control spending, but tended to view raising the debt ceiling as a necessary evil.
Voters strongly believe spending cuts should be greater than the amount of any debt ceiling increase.
Participants desire evidence that Washington is ready to stop its spending spree, and cutting $1 of spending for every $1 the debt ceiling is raised is viewed as failing to get ahead of the problem. The phrase “we have got to stop spending money we don’t have” was a common and persuasive refrain, as Resurgent Republic has found in previous national surveys.
The strong Republican voters were more likely to believe the debt ceiling will eventually need to be raised, even if they disdain doing so. The Tea Party voters were more adamant about pursuing a new path forward. Yet both groups prefer a solution void of perpetual debt limit increases. Another common concern among all the voting groups was the spending cuts would end up being symbolic changes and not be substantial enough.
In addressing the national debt, there was limited perception that a robust economy will have a more lasting impact on increasing government revenue than raising taxes, and little sense of correlation between higher taxes and job loss.
Participants also had a difficult time comprehending potential consequences of not increasing the debt limit. Washington’s reckless spending is real to the respondents, while the scenarios that might arise from not increasing the debt limit seemed mostly theoretical.
Nearly 15 months after becoming law, the perception of President Obama’s health care law is largely unchanged.
When asked their perception of the new law, Obamacare seems just as complicated and bureaucratic as it was to them during the peak of the national debate. Yet the intensity on this issue has decreased among these Independents, with their attention predominantly on the economy. Some cited an increase in their health care premiums in the past year, while a few voters positively mentioned adding dependent coverage until the age of 26. The argument to repeal and replace the law received mixed response due to concern that those efforts have an uncertain outcome and would divert attention from the economy. This is consistent with their view that President Obama diverted attention from the economy by focusing on passing his health care bill in the first place. Among the Republican base and Tea Party voters, the intensity on this issue remains strong, and they unanimously want the law repealed. They also expressed satisfaction with the actions congressional Republicans have taken so far to repeal the new law.
Voters in all the groups did not immediately voice concern that Obamacare is a drag on small businesses and hindering job creation.
Among the Pennsylvania Independents there was an undertone questioning why the president spent the better part of his first two years on health care and not their top priority of job creation. This notion led one male Independent to conclude that President Obama “took his eye off the ball” and another said the president was more interested in getting a “trophy.”
Yet free-market advocates should be aware that Independent voters did not immediately voice concern that Obamacare imposes burdensome regulations on small businesses. When asked, most concede that the law will hurt the economy, so there remains malleability on this issue. The Republican base and Tea Party participants quickly saw Obamacare as bad for the economy and having a negative impact on health care. Reminding all voters of how the law will become an increasing drag on the economy should be a priority.
There was little knowledge among voters of the current debate over Medicare taking place in Washington.
This is somewhat surprising, but underscores the prominence of the economy among voters and the lack of engagement of Independents nearly 18 months out from Election Day. Also when compared to discussing President Obama’s job performance or increasing the debt ceiling, the intensity among the Republican and Tea Party voters dissipated somewhat.
Yet voters know that Medicare is going bankrupt.
Participants were quick to acknowledge that Medicare will go bankrupt in a short number of years, even if there was little understanding of how Medicare is funded. Many respondents were not aware that Medicare is funded outside of payroll taxes and were surprised to learn that in the coming years more than half of Medicare funding will be borrowed from general revenues.
Participants were not aware that the new health care law imposes changes to Medicare.
This is not surprising given that Obamacare was not at the forefront among many of these swing voters. These voters, however, expressed concern after learning how President Obama’s health care law alters Medicare, such as cutting funding by $500 billion and creating the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). They believe the funding cuts would hasten Medicare’s financial problems. After a brief discussion, participants do not believe IPAB will enhance quality of care and will do more to interfere between patients and their doctors.
There is little consensus on the best way to make Medicare financially solvent for future generations.
Many participants were fixated that rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse would fix the challenges facing Medicare. The fact that 10,000 baby boomers are joining Medicare each day was new information to many respondents and highlighted the unsustainable trend in the years ahead.
After learning about the Republican plan to make Medicare financially solvent, respondents reacted positively to options that would increase their freedom in choosing the health care plan best suited for them. Yet respondents were skeptical that changes to Medicare would provide enough financial assistance, especially when compared to the plan Members of Congress receive.
The participants expressed genuine concern that the government would not cover enough costs in a premium-support system should insurance rates increase. The concept that competition would reduce overall costs and improve quality was not widely accepted. Many voters cited that competition among the health care industry today has not kept costs low.
Overall, the participants gave Republicans credit for putting forward a plan to make Medicare financially solvent. President Obama, however, is seen as not leading on this issue. Some participants believe he has not put forward a plan to fix Medicare, as required by law, due to political concerns.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (PA-08)
June 21, 2011
Independent Men (under 55) / Independent Women (under 55)
Conducted by The Tarrance Group
Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA-02)
June 23, 2011
Strong Republicans / Tea Party Voters
Conducted by McLaughlin & Associates
Orlando, Florida (FL-08)
June 29, 2011
Independent Men (55+) / Independent Women (55+)
Conducted by American Viewpoint
Denver, Colorado (Denver Suburbs)
June 30, 2011
Soft Republicans / Hispanics
Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies