Did the first debate change enough minds?

It’s probably not a good idea for a writer to comment too publicly about politics or religion. However, since I am passionate about both subjects I am going to violate the conventional wisdom. After all, one of my favorite fiction authors, Brad Thor, is an unabashed conservative. I’d say he’s doing alright.

Mitt Romney clearly won last night’s debate. He was forceful, energetic and in command – of both facts and ideas. President Obama, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy defending his record as much as undergoing a root canal. I almost felt sorry for him. Worst. Anniversary. Ever.

The question remains, though – despite the challenger’s win – did Governor Romney change enough minds? Consider this, President Obama beat John McCain by 7.2% in 2008. So Romney, all other things being equal, must win the votes of all the McCain voters plus almost eight voters out of a hundred who voted for Obama last time. Now, other things of course are not equal; respective enthusiasm for the candidates is different as is the makeup of the electorate.

Changing minds is hard. Voters don’t like to admit they made a mistake when they voted for the President four years ago, especially this incumbent. I think a substantial number of voters supported the President because he is black, and took pride that America has evolved to the point that it can elect a black president. Will those voters now admit not only a mistake but fire the first black president for incompetence?

I was fascinated by the Frank Luntz focus group of undecided voters held last night at Colorado Christian University. The group was comprised of twenty-four likely voters who were self-identified as undecided. They overwhelmingly agreed Romney won the debate. At the 3:05 mark, Luntz asked, “How many of you who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 now plan to vote for Mitt Romney?” I counted seven. We weren’t told how many of the participants voted for Obama in 2008, but likely not all 24. Even if all 24 voted for Obama last time, 29% of the group now planned to change their vote. Sounds promising for Romney, doesn’t it?

Not so fast. A majority of the voters who voted for Obama last time are ossified, hard-core Democrats who would vote for him again no matter what. So only the independents and a few Democrats are flexible enough to change votes.

Back to the focus group and why I find it so interesting. I think when you watch an event like the debate in a group setting is different than watching it alone on the couch. The focus group members are more engaged, knowing they may be put on the spot for an opinion. There are also powerful group dynamics in play. When members of the group make it clear they are changing their vote, it gives permission for other group members to do the same. It’s similar to the dynamics in play for members of a jury. Undecided voters who voted for the President last time who watched the debate alone (or with an Obama supporter) may not have yet received permission to change their vote. Certainly the mainstream media will not give that permission. It’s up to family and friends to give permission to an on-the-fence voter.

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