DENVER—Americans are increasingly upset about the state of the country and its leadership, and the presidential election may hinge on whether Barack Obama or John McCain can best persuade voters that he can find bipartisan, common-sense solutions to the country's problems.
This seemed to be the consensus among 21 swing voters who were part of an extensive discussion of politics and the issues in Denver Sunday afternoon. "They're tired of being depressed," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz in summarizing the two-hour session, which he moderated. "They're tired of being angry. They're tired of being lied to." Among the biggest sources of disappointment were the record of President George W. Bush, the character problems of former President Bill Clinton while he was in office, and the U.S. decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence that the Baghdad government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Many Americans believe "they've been screwed" by Bush and Clinton, and they are deeply frustrated by the experience, Luntz said in analyzing the session afterward.
The focus group was designed to elicit the swing voters' opinions about the current campaign in depth, and some of the impressions were vivid. For one, there is intense dissatisfaction with both major-party candidates. Republican McCain was faulted for being too close to the unpopular policies of Bush. Democrat Obama was criticized for being too inexperienced.
Still, most of the focus group participants said they aren't ready to decide between the two candidates. Asked by U.S. News what might help them make up their minds, most said the upcoming debates between Obama and McCain will be crucial. "I want to see how McCain and Obama deal with each other," said Sondra Owens, 43, a Denver food and beverage coordinator. Asked what was more important to them—change (which has been emphasized by Obama) or accountability, 8 of the 21 said accountability.
The opinions were varied and often strongly held. Nancy Steele, 42, a professional fund-raiser said she was deeply upset when she learned that McCain had hired some of the hard-edged consultants who had played negative politics in the past and who once worked for Karl Rove, Bush's political architect. "It broke my heart," she said, adding that as a result she lost faith in McCain.
Doug Mangels, 48, a firefighter, said, "I'm tired of the politicians bringing sweet pork barrel deals". He also criticized the candidates for being too vague. After viewing a McCain TV ad on healthcare, Mangels said, "I know the problems as well as he does. I want to know the fix."
Eric Baracke, 53, an engineering company owner, said politicians aren't offering specific solutions to the country's problems. Instead they say to "just hunker down" and avoid the details rather than risk alienating some voters.
The participants were asked to come up with a word or phrase to describe Bush, and their answers were mostly negative, ranging from "dishonest," and "fiasco," to "irresponsible." One, looking on the positive side, said "self assured." Asked about Obama, several were just as negative, using words such as: '"apocalypse," "scary," "inexperienced," and "unknown." Others said "charismatic," "hopeful," and "change." Regarding McCain, their responses were a bit more positive than those for Obama ranging from "strong," and "experienced," to "patriot." But the critics said "Bush 2," "older generation," and "old boy."
Asked what issues were most important to them, 17 said Washington over-spending, 11 said education, 11 said competitiveness in the global economy, 10 said inflation, and nine said U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Teague Dufresne, 31, a computer-products saleswomen, said the candidates aren't being honest and are "sugar coating" the nation's problems.