Last week, we watched President Obama’s fourth State of the Union address with 44 swing voters in Denver, Colorado. As they watched the speech, the voters registered their moment-to-moment responses using state-of-the-art perception analyzer technology.
The President had a successful night. Democratic-leaning participants cheered his bolder agenda and stronger tone. As one told us after the speech, “I wanted to clap; I got misty-eyed.” Independents responded especially well to Obama’s call to cut through partisanship and prevent another debt ceiling debacle. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama’s plan for tax reform and his call for bipartisan cooperation to break the gridlock in Washington. Importantly, even as they remain concerned about Washington’s ability to get things done, these voters are optimistic about the President’s clear-eyed agenda for his second term.
We surveyed the participants before and after the speech and found that Obama made significant gains on the big issues: looking out for the middle class, having good plans for the economy, and having realistic solutions to the country’s problems. He also made gains on some of the most current and pressing issues—a 9-point gain on trust to handle gun violence, a 9-point gain on trust to handle Medicare and Social Security, and a 9-point gain on looking out for the interests of women.
Voters responded most positively to the President’s call to raise the minimum wage. Participants from all parties reacted favorably to the idea of “tying the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.” Dials rose to 75 overall (80 among unmarried women, 82 among Democrats, 76 among independents, and 70 among Republicans).
These voters are deeply concerned about the rising cost of college education and the declining quality of public elementary and secondary schools. As a result, President Obama’s emphasis on education was met with strong approval among voters from all parties. As one woman noted, funding cuts to education have come at a steep cost. “My daughter is never in school because of furlough days due to budget cuts.” The President’s comments about the rising cost of colleges also hit home. These mostly middle class voters feel the squeeze in a big way when it comes to affording college education. “There are some good college savings programs out there. You can try and put money in for your kids’ future, but what money do you have left over to put in?”
As westerners, these voters took particular note when the President addressed energy and the environment. The President made a 10-point gain on handling energy policy after the speech. These voters view Obama’s energy policy as smart for jobs, the environment, and national security. In focus groups following the speech, voters highlighted alternative energy sources, including wind and solar, as areas where the country needs to make significant gains in the near future. One voter noted that the U.S. lags behind other countries and suffers an inability to create green jobs, which are sustainable for the future. During the speech all dials, especially those of Republicans, climbed when the President sympathized about the painful price of home heating fuel and gasoline. And Obama’s call to cut in half energy wasted by homes and businesses was met with a strong response from voters, with the total line topping out at 75, independents at 77, and Republicans at 67.
While voters applauded the President and believed this speech reflected a bolder new direction, they remained skeptical about Obama’s ability to bring about these changes. His supporters in the audience continue to worry about Republican obstruction, particularly in the context of the budget battles that defined the final months of 2012. Others worry that his oratory outshines Washington’s capacity to bring about the big changes (particularly on the economy) that these voters believe we desperately need.
If the country is to make progress on any big agenda, Washington in general (and leaders in Congress in particular) must dramatically shift course in 2013. On this point, voters are far ahead of their leaders. For example, it was clear from the dial meters and the follow-up focus groups that Republican leaders in Congress are increasingly out of step with ordinary Republican voters. This was most evident when Republican voters responded very favorably to the President’s remark that we must “keep the government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.” As March 1 looms in the near future, leaders in Washington would do well to keep voters in Denver in mind.