October 16, 2012

As the country readies itself for tonight’s second presidential debate, we wanted to understand what approaches and arguments are likely to sway voters.  To do this we tested key segments of last week’s vice presidential debate with hundreds of voters from across the country.  Using our web-based Instant Response Dial technology we found what worked, what didn’t, and why.  What follows is a quick rundown of what we learned.


1. Not much rattles the base.  Democrats reacted positively to Biden and Republicans to Ryan.  Independents were split.  This isn’t surprising.  It’s important to remember most answers are unlikely to sway most people.  They’ve made up their minds and view events through their own lenses.  So watch for those brief moments when you feel yourself momentarily nodding your head for “the other guy.”  And we watch for that in the dial lines.


2. Libya’s a problem.  No one—Republicans, Independents, or Democrats—was having any of Biden’s claims of knowing nothing about threats or attacks in Libya.  And everyone, regardless of party, reacted positively to Ryan’s rejoinder.  Obama noticed, since Secretary Clinton (who says she’s retiring after the election) fell on her sword yesterday and accepted full responsibility—just in time for tonight’s debate.


3. Nobody likes a hypocrite.  One of Biden’s strongest moments came when he revealed Ryan requested federal funds for his constituents, despite having attacked those funds as wasteful federal spending just seconds earlier.  Even some of our Republicans had to admit this undermined Ryan’s Thrift Crusader image.


4. Wrong direction = right message.  Ryan hit his stride with Democrats and those who say they’re undecided when talking about the slow growth of the economy under Obama.  He hammered example after example of numbers that have gotten worse over the last months.  But instead of relying only on obscure metrics he opened in relatable terms about overall growth.  While Biden took issue with his facts, voters reacted favorably.


5. The power of “responsibility.”  For Dems, no economic message has more resonance than the idea that corporations and the rich need to take more responsibility.  But the message also did fairly well with Republicans, who seemed to see this message of more responsible businesses as much better than any message about the government’s role in that responsibility.  While “leveling the playing field” turned some voters off and smacked of government-led wealth redistribution, Democrats seem to have an opportunity to calm Republican alarms of socialism if they frame their arguments in terms of businesses.


6. 47% doesn’t move the needle.  Voters may be over it.  Or else they’ve decided how they feel.  Either way, it was clear that the voters we surveyed weren’t moved by Biden’s attacks.


7. Demeanor didn’t sway many voters.  This was surprising.  Going into the testing we assumed many voters – from both sides – would be swayed by the demeanor of the two candidates.  In reality, those who seemed to like and support Vice President Biden praised his antics.  Those who support or like Ryan applauded his subdued performance and saw Biden as a smirking bully.

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