Ohioblog: A Swing State Journal
Sunday, October 10, 2004
This isn't your usual Ohioblog. It is Ohioblog on the road, out there among his fellow Ohioans. Please pardon the interruption of our regularly scheduled programing and check out the complementary story by Steven Thomma, Mark Johnson and James Kuhnhenn.
They came to Northeast Ohio, the national political correspondent and the pollster, to cut through the background noise of the contentious campaign and get to the heart of which way the most crucial swing state of all might turn on Nov. 2.
``We need to drill deeper,'' pollster John Zogby told the six men and six women in a focus group that had gathered to watch the second presidential debate, ``to find out details, to learn your emotions, strength of feeling, level of intensity.''
Zogby and Steven Thomma, chief political correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, required only one thing from these 12 people to accomplish their goal.
``All I'm looking for,'' Zogby said, ``is total honesty.''
He and Thomma found that and more. They discovered a group of ordinary Ohioans who were special, people willing to open up and put their feelings, some raw, some not so easily formed into words, on the line.
A number of the 12 would do so hesitantly in a conference room filled with strangers in a downtown Cleveland hotel. For months now, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, have been coming to Ohio to talk to the few voters who will listen, who still might be reached if a candidate can somehow rise above the clatter created by two highly partisan sides shouting at each other.
``You have to leave yourself open,'' said Donald Card of East Cleveland.
Card was typical of this group. So this was figuratively, though not literally, a good room for the candidates to be heard. As the their images flickered Friday night on a large TV at end of three paper-covered tables formed into a horseshoe, Zogby had to keep pushing the volume higher and higher with a remote control he couldn't afford to let out of his hands.
``This is totally tasteless,'' he told the group, apologizing more than once for the din.
The hotel had put the presidential debate focus group next to a wedding reception. Music and joy that no walls could contain pounded through the flimsy dividers and into the focus group's space. No one complained. No one became upset. With the lights dimmed to allow the group the best view of the TV screen, several people picked up the complimentary note pads on the tables and went to work. This was no lark. These were serious citizens. They had answered every priliminary question that Zogby posed, including providing one-word or short impressions of each of the candidates. (Bush: Father, liar, keeps his word, Texas, simple-minded, war monger. Kerry: immature, industrious, optimist, Kennedy wannabe, hollow). One of the group had a one-word answer later for why he would spend his Friday night doing this.
``Patriotism,'' explained Jay Hickman of West Cleveland. ``Patriotism.''
To determine what might move such open-minded voters, Knight Ridder Newspapers, with the help of Zogby International, the polling and marketing research firm, is conducting such focus groups in the five of the swing states where some (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Minnesota) its 32 daily newspapers are published. They were in Northeast Ohio because of the Akron Beacon Journal, and they knew what they were likely to find - Democrats and independents with Democratic leanings.
``The question is,'' Thomma told Ohioblog, ``whether there are enough votes here to offset those in other parts of Ohio.''
Cleveland and Akron belonged to Al Gore four years ago. Gore did well in Ohio's cities - Cinncinnati and Hamiliton County being an exception - but George W. Bush beat him by a large enough margin in suburban and rural Ohio to eke out a 3.6 percent victory. Bush would not be president without Ohio's 20 electoral votes. If anything, Ohio's votes are even more important this year, especially to Kerry.
When it comes to analysis, RealClearPolitics.com is arguably the best of the political Web sites. ``Our earlier analysis suggesting that the race boils down to Florida and Ohio stands, John McIntyre wrote before the second debate. ``However, it looks as if the aftermath of the hurricanes may have given President Bush a decisive edge there, so in reality it
now all about Ohio. If Kerry doesn't win Ohio, he will not be president.''
In a new poll for the Reuters news agency, Zogby found 46 percent of likely voters for Kerry and 45 percent for Bush. Before coming down on one side or the other, what the Ohio focus group members wanted to hear from Bush and Kerry were answers stripped to their understandable essence: How does the United States get out of Iraq honorably? What would you do to keep Americans safe? Is there any way bring work back to areas such as Northeast Ohio, where good jobs seem to disappear each day? How will the federal government help our stuggling local schools? What will you do to make health care available and affordable? How can the country do all you hope without going further into debt?
After the wedding-reception noise had waned and the debate had ended, the group assessed what if anything the debate had contributed to their Election Day decision. Brian, a young Clevelander sho asked that his last name not be used, thought about what had brought him to the group.
``I came,'' he said, ``because I've seen what George Bush can do, and I believe John Kerry has a better plan but I just needed to be convinced that he has the ability to put it into action.''
Brian listened to the candidates and to his fellow focus group members and by the time the music had died next door, he was in the Kerry column. A peculiar thing occurred, however: Although more people (six) believed Kerry won the debate (three thought Bush had and three considered there to be no clear winner), the president picked up three possible votes. The evening had begun with seven voters leaning toward Kerry, one toward Bush and four undecided. It ended with seven for Kerry, four for Bush and one still undecided - and with several people reserving the right to change their mind still again after Wednesday's final debate. To illustrate how people can change their minds quickly, consider the woman whose initial description of Bush was ``war monger'' but by the end of the evening said she thought he was her man. Bush also was doing better among the black focus members conventional wisdom dictates.
``Kerry just hasn't given African-Americans what they want yet,'' said Shawnta Watson Walcott, Zogby Director of Communications. ``The faith, sincerity and conviction - they just haven't come through.''
That doesn't mean Kerry won't get the expected 90 percent of the black vote. It does mean, Walcott said, that some blacks may simply stay home Nov. 2. Two members of the focus group, for instance, did not vote in 2000. Everyone said they would vote Nov. 2, that this is too important a vote not to cast.
How other Ohioans will vote is the question, because in the end this was only 12 ordinary Ohioans and they did not pretend to speak for all Ohioans. But Thomma had seen something in these 12 people and heard much from them.
``I liked them,'' he said. ``They had a conversation going. I wish we had had more time just to listen to them. They were a better group than we had in Detroit (where there had been no debate to watch and consider.)''
During the course of the evening, the occasional wedding reception guest stuck a head through the focus group doorway to see how the debate was going. They would watch and listen to the president or the senator for a minute or two and then be sucked back toward the celebration next door, unaware that during this election season Ohio's real music was coming from this room, made by these 12 ordinary yet special Ohioans.
- Steve Love
posted by Ohioblog: A Swing State Journal at 8:50 AM
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