What the focus group thought

I’ve largely given up trying to guess how the public will respond to political speeches; I can think of too many instances in which my expectations were backwards.

When it comes to President Obama’s jobs speech last night, it certainly seemed like the kind of address that would connect with the American mainstream, and time will tell if it affects the polls at all (and how long those effects last). But while we wait, Geoff Garin, a pollster for Hart Research Associates, conducted a focus group in Richmond last night, gauging the responses from 32 swing voters in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) congressional district.

Priorities USA, which is aligned with Democrats, released a report on the dial test this morning. The swing voters, apparently, were pretty impressed.

Substantively, these swing voters liked the President’s proposals. They came to the speech with deep concerns about the economic situation and came away from the speech persuaded and encouraged that Obama has good ideas for improving America’s economy.

The dial ratings stayed high throughout virtually all of the President’s proposals — with particularly strong responses to his proposals to invest in America’s infrastructure, modernize America’s schools, continue the payroll tax break for middle-class Americans, provide new tax breaks for small businesses, and put teachers who have been laid off back to work.

The dials also reflect a very positive reaction to President Obama’s discussion of the budget and the fact that his jobs proposals would be paid for. Indeed, the section of the speech in which the President laid out the “simple arithmetic” of the choice between maintaining tax breaks and subsidies or spending on basic priorities scores particularly well. In the discussion afterward, respondents said they liked the simplicity, clarity, and realism of this section.

It’s worth emphasizing that the focus group were not reflexive allies of the White House — many respondents “came into the room feeling discouraged, dispirited, and disappointed.” Before the speech, fewer than half the participants believed the president’s economic agenda was better than congressional Republicans’. After the speech, nearly three-quarters trusted Obama over the GOP on creating jobs.

It’s just one focus group, of course, but it’s a preliminary hint that the White House’s message is the right one, at least as far as the public is concerned. Now all the president and his team have to do is figure out a way to communicate this same message to the millions of Americans who didn’t bother tuning in last night, convincing a fair number of them to pressure members of Congress to pass it, and figuring out a way to convince Republicans it’s in their (and the country’s) interests to do the right thing.

Piece of cake, right?