For the first stop of my Red State Road Trip through sprawling stretches of the American heartland, I watched the inaugural US presidential debate of the 2012 election season inside the Robert J Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
The “watch party” for this big state school was naturally full of journalism and politics students just getting their feet wet with the quadrennial election cycle.
At the heart of the Dole Institute event was a “focus group” recruited by marketers as a random sample of “unaffiliated” voters.
This being Kansas, the crowd was certainly more white than a random national selection of Americans – but not necessarily disproportionately conservative. The group appeared liberal for this region of the country, as many hail from highly-educated areas around Lawrence, the state’s biggest college town, and also from the Kansas City metro area.
Unlike in many of the post-debate polls conducted by media organisations after Wednesday’s contest, Barack Obama fared better than Mitt Romney with this audience. But 36 per cent said they remained undecided.
I spoke with one such couple, who are registered Republican but who cannot make up their minds about November 6.
After the formal focus group activity finished off, I caught up with Stewart and Eileen Grosser, a retired husband and wife originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who now own a farm in Eudora, Kansas.
Having been married for 51 years, the Grossers wrapped up jobs in sales and marketing to “enjoy life” in Kansas with their five children and 13 grandchildren. Here’s what we discussed:
Where would the country be today if McCain-Palin had won in 2008?
Eileen: I was voting for McCain until he chose Palin [as his running mate]. So, I think Congress would have worked with him better. I think we would have made pretty good headway, since Congress has not worked well with Obama. But I’m not sure worldwide we would have made more headway, even if [the Republican ticket] would have been better for the economy.
The economy has slowly been recovering since 2008, and some political analysts say Obama can be re-elected as long as GDP growth is just “good enough” around 1.6 per cent annually, and as long as his approval rating hovers around the high 40 per cent range. Do you buy this argument?
Stewart: I would say in probably four more years with Obama – about that period of time – we should see results. It’s not going to happen in the next two to three years. We’re fighting too much at the same time, with the military in Afghanistan as the biggest problem. Then there’s the national debt, medical [issues], the jobs situation. He inherited a lot. It’s a tough battle … and we’re not together as a government.
We have heard some voters say that Obama doesn’t need to be “magical” but just present a rational, realistic approach. Do you want to see the same presidential and vice-presidential faces on your TV screen for the next four years, or do you prefer to have a new dynamic duo in the White House?
Eileen: I want to see new senators in Congress. They talk about cutting entitlements for the middle class – for this 47 per cent [of us] that Romney talked about.
Stewart: It isn’t [about] the face of Obama. It’s that the Democratic [candidate] is stronger than the Republican one. Yet there are some things Obama is in favor of that I don’t like.
Do you think Obama can rely on the “80/40” strategy, meaning that at least 80 per cent of nonwhite voters and 40 per cent of white voters will have to choose him?
Stewart: I think there are people who won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. I don’t say its a big percentage but I do think there’s that unrevealed group.
Many pundits say these debates are Obama’s to lose, rather than Romney’s to win. Is this true?
Eileen: I think they’ve underestimated the undecided voters. From talking to my friends and other people, I don’t think they’re counting up those votes. I was offended by the 47 per cent that Romney [cited]. Being retired, I would be included in that. He’s not trying to get my vote, and every vote counts. Some of my friends are still working, and some are younger. And over 60 per cent of them are still undecided – ones who live in Kansas City [and elsewhere]. I voted for Obama last time. Stewart also voted for Obama last time. Romney is just not in touch with the majority of Americans.
Statistically, there is a low probability that any of the debates will be a game-changer, truly moving voters beyond the polls’ margin of error. Can Obama avoid the famous gaffes made by Richard Nixon in 1960 sweating in the first televised debate, and by Al Gore in 2000 approaching George W Bush on the podium?
Stewart: Obama has got a lot of that charisma. Really, Romney had his eyes in the headlights [in the first debate], from what I saw of him. It was in Obama’s corner. But you see their faces more than their bodies. Beyond facial expressions, most emotions come from the shoulders.
The GOP voters were initially indecisive during the primaries, with voters at times favouring Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and finally Mitt Romney. Is the party fickle, or did it just take time to find the right guy?
Eileen: Romney tried two elections before. He wasn’t liked. But there was a lot of fighting going on between Perry and Gingrich [this year]. Romney was back and forth with his philosophy to appeal to the far-right, then swung to the centre attuned to big business. But will they really change the loopholes for [top earners]? Romney was also not willing to show his taxes. And Ryan scares me.
Stewart: I think he has good intentions and would be good president. But I’m not sure about Ryan though. Well we’ll have to watch the vice presidential debate. Romney’s dad tried to become president and didn’t win. We wonder what Romney’s goals are for becoming president. My big question [for the presidential next debate] is – does Romney have the ability to go into a debate with just his gubernatorial knowledge, against a president who’s in the know?