Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y.C.?
Manuel Balce Ceneta  /  AP
Is America's ideal presidential candidate a combination of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y.C.?
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 5/23/2007 2:48:21 PM ET 2007-05-23T18:48:21

If one were to allow 12 voters from a cross-section of life and ideologies to pick the next president, some combination of Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama would be the landslide winner. At least that’s the conclusion of 12 voters from the swing voting area of Baltimore County, Md., via a focus group sponsored by the Annenberg Center of the Univ. of Pennsylvania. 

A handful of political reporters were invited to observe the group behind a wall. The participants knew they were being observed and knew they were being filmed by C-SPAN. (Sometime later this week or weekend, C-SPAN will air the focus group in its entirety including a post-game chat between focus group moderator, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, and the observing reporters.)

While a snapshot of just 12 voters is dangerous to draw conclusions from, the focus group provided me an insight on some things about this race that I had been pondering, but hadn’t written down.

First, some of the big take-aways from the session:

  • The group was more interested in a presidential candidate who provided a vision and leadership rather than one who had real-world experience. Hence, the very positive support for both Giuliani and Obama.
  • The group seemed torn between wanting a candidate who provided hope and a candidate who made them feel safe. These folks aren’t happy with the country right now (thanks mostly to Iraq), but want to feel good again… BUT, they are still nervous about terrorism and still yearning for safety. In fact, Democratic strategists should take note of this single fact: When the 12 were asked to pick the potential president they viewed as the "safest" choice, 10 of the 12 picked Republican candidates (4 Rudy, 4 John McCain, 2 Mitt Romney, 1 John Edwards and 1 Obama).  At least among these 12 voters, Republicans STILL get the benefit of the doubt on safety and security.
  • The longer a candidate has been on the national stage, the less appealing they were to these folks. Clinton, McCain and Edwards all didn’t do very well and, frankly, it’s probably because they aren’t seen as "fresh" or "new."
  • It’s amazing the benefit of the doubt that is given to both Obama and Giuliani. The less they know, the better? Possibly so.

Heavy negatives
Now, let’s dig into the details a bit for each candidate.

The other big news from this focus group, beyond the very positive initial response for Obama and Giuliani, is the very negative reaction they had toward Clinton. If these 12 folks are truly a cross-section of the electorate, then Hillary Clinton has a LOT of work to do. Eight of the 12 said they could not support her under any circumstance and seven of the 12 said she has the "furthest to go" in winning their trust. The word "cold" was tossed around a few times by a Democrat and an independent member of the panel. In fact, when asked to give one word or phrase that comes to mind when they heard her name, the only positive adjective used was "determined."  The rest of the responses were negative.  By the way, Hart asked for adjectives on Bill Clinton and the responses were just as negative, with only a couple offering a positive expression.

Obama clearly was the "hot" candidate as far as this group was concerned. He was the candidate a plurality wanted to meet with personally -- more so than Giuliani or Clinton. And when asked, early on, (before information on each candidate was introduced), who they wanted as the next POTUS (President of the United States), Obama came out on top, with 5 votes, compared to 3 for Giuliani, 2 for Clinton and 1 each for McCain and Edwards. When asked what word or phrase comes to mind when Obama was mentioned by name, just one negative was used - "inexperienced." The rest of the adjectives were positive - "charismatic, smart, articulate, potential, independent and excitable" (It seemed to me the person was trying to say exciting).

The experience and gun factors
If there was a weakness in the group for Obama, it is that while the group saw a lot of promise in the candidate, the experience issue seemed to bother them as the night went on. When Hart put them through an exercise that included picking from a list of descriptions of what kind of POTUS Obama would be, the group had a hard time picking any of the choices to describe an Obama presidency. At that moment in the group, you could sense doubt creeping in about him.

As for Edwards, three years ago he was in the position of Obama when one observed a focus group like this. I went to one in Dayton, Ohio, just after Edwards was picked as John Kerry’s running mate, and Edwards had universal appeal and trust among the entire ideological spectrum of focus group participants. Fast-forward three years and Edwards has gone from a "fresh face" to a "pretty boy." One of the participants had even seen the now-infamous YouTube parody of Edwards fixing his hair to the tune of "I feel pretty."

As for the GOP candidates, as noted up top, Giuliani fared very well with these folks. In fact, when asked, regardless of their personal choice who they THOUGHT would be the next POTUS, half of the group said Giuliani, four picked Obama and one person each picked Clinton and Edwards. On the adjective question, Giuliani received mostly positive responses, with the two negative comments coming from members of the group who claimed to know what Giuliani was like as New York mayor. The only other red flag on Rudy seemed to be his stance on guns, not abortion. Remember, the first FIVE states on the calendar are basically pro-gun states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida).

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McCain faired both well and mediocre at the same, if that’s possible. In many ways, McCain felt like an after-thought during the 90 minutes I observed this group. When his name was brought up, he received solid support but there wasn’t a passion to the support. It was very matter-of-fact.  Two answers given during the adjective portion of the focus group would trouble me if I were working for McCain - "old school" and "history."  Also, eight of the 12 members said McCain’s Iraq position was a non-starter for them, i.e. a disqualifier.  Of course, most of those 8 were NOT Republican primary voters.

Neither Romney nor Fred Thompson was dismissed by the group, but neither Republican was familiar enough to these voters to elicit deep thoughts. Overall, the 12 had strongest opinions about Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, McCain and Edwards.  That said, Romney ought to be very wary about one thing: his reputation that he flip-flops on issues. When informed that Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on a number of issues, it caused serious problems for a number of the focus groupers.

Beward the focus groups
And now a few caveats. As many readers know, I teased this column and the focus group findings in today’s "First Read." The tease prompted one very smart and veteran Democratic pollster to email me a slew of clips from Oct. ’99 of a similar focus group. The group indicated how potent of a threat Bill Bradley was to Al Gore.  What’s the message in that? The campaign has only just begun.  We’ve seen nominees past blow by these "fresh face" candidates by simply winning ugly. 

Here’s a snapshot of the 12 people in the focus group:

  •       5 Democrats
  •       4 Republicans
  •       3 independents
  •       6 Bush voters, 6 Kerry voters
  •       6 men, 6 women
  •       5 self-described "conservatives"
  •       6 self-described "moderates"
  •       1 self-described "liberal"
  •       7 are college grads, 5 had "some college"
  •       9 are married, 1 is divorced, 2 are single
  •       6 had children under 18 at home, 6 did not
  •       The 12 occupations: systems analyst (liberal, female, Kerry voter, age 53), retired biologist (moderate, male, Bush voter, age 64), car salesman (conservative, male, Bush voter, age 56), dental hygienist (conservative, female, Bush voter, age 42), insurance broker (conservative, male, Bush voter, age 52), securities analyst (moderate, male, Kerry voter, age 27), loan officer (moderate, female, Kerry voter, age 37), minister (conservative, male, Kerry voter, age 36), college senior (moderate, male, Kerry voter, age 23), homemaker (conservative, female, Bush voter, age 43), security analyst (moderate, female, Kerry voter, age 72) and a legal assistant (moderate, female, Bush voter, age 61).

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