CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "I don't believe that Romney is the right candidate, but I don't believe Obama has deserved the right to be re-elected," said Anita, a 64-year-old woman who took part in a focus group conducted by political messaging expert Frank Luntz Monday in an office park south of downtown Charlotte. Anita, who voted for Obama in 2008, was laid off in the economic downturn and sent out resumes for two years without finding work. Now, she volunteers for her homeowner's association.
Holly, 42, another woman who voted for Obama, was also laid off. She has a new job now but is filled with anxiety about losing it. "I was laid off last year and it was for four months," she said. "Now, every time I go to work, it's how long am I going to be able to work? It's just awful."
Patricia is a 48-year-old Obama voter for whom daily life has been a struggle the last few years. "The reason this election is so important is it's about everyday living," she said. "It's about feeding my children day to day. If we don't do something, I can't handle another four years like we've done."
"People are starting to get anxious," added Mindi, a 37-year-old who also voted for Obama. "They're starting to feel the pressure of how much more of this can I take?"
All the women gave off unmistakable signs that they are moving away from their support of the president. And they were not alone in the group. Many who have suffered the most serious economic hardships -- and who also voted for Obama -- expressed clear disappointment with the way things have gone in the last four years. One woman worries about health care for her Down Syndrome child ("I'm a stay-at-home mom, I've got four kids, and we have medical bills lining up"). Another worries about her parents ("My dad got laid off, and their budget is too tight. I work two jobs, and I should be able to help them, but I have two kids"). And yet another worries that her husband, now back at work after 18 months of unemployment, might lose his job again ("I couldn't live on what I make. I'm a seamstress").
Of the 27 people in the room, 24 voted for Obama in 2008. (Luntz looked for participants who were not strongly committed to a candidate, and found that '08 McCain voters have firmly decided to vote for Romney; hence most who made the cut were Obama voters.) Midway through the proceedings, Luntz asked, "When you walked in here, were you voting for Romney or Obama or undecided?" Eleven said they are undecided. Nine said they were for Romney. Seven said they are for Obama -- out of 24 who voted for him in 2008. Even if Obama ultimately wins all the undecideds, he's still behind his old pace.
When Luntz asked everyone to describe Obama in a single word or phrase, the results were mostly painful for the White House. "Charismatic," said the first person. "Arrogant," said the next. Then: "Doesn't come through with what he said." "Great salesman." "Struggling." "Dreamer." "Incompetent." "Lack of leadership." "Compromised." "Trying." "Big disappointment." "Failure." "Misleading." "Uncertain." "Good speaker." "Intelligent." "Not experienced." "Courageous." "Leader." "Politician."
At another point, Luntz asked whether the group members were personally better or worse off than they were four years ago. Six said they were better off, 13 said they were worse off, and six said they were about the same. (A couple declined to say.) After all the struggles of the last four years, all the disappointment in Barack Obama, all the fears about the future -- not to mention 8.3 percent unemployment, huge deficits, and a $16 trillion national debt -- the question becomes: How in the world can the president win re-election?
The answer emerged as the group talked more and it became clear that while many are leaving Obama -- some have plainly left -- they haven't yet embraced Romney. Unless Romney can convince them that electing him will make their lives better, many could fall back and reluctantly give Obama another chance.
A lot of their problems with Romney stem from his wealth; some seem to resent it for its own sake, and others question whether it makes it impossible for him to understand their problems. "I'm wondering how many of the unemployed are because of the factories and jobs he sent overseas," said one man.
A woman tied Romney to the Wall Street collapse and bailouts. "Nobody has gone to jail for the skullduggery," she said.
"He's rich because he was born into it," said another woman. "He didn't work for it."
As he did for Obama, Luntz asked for short descriptions of Romney. The responses weren't boffo -- some focus negatively on Romney's wealth -- but on the whole they were significantly better than Obama's. "Likeable," said the first person. "Decent," said the second. Then: "Elitist." "Born with a silver spoon." "Determined." "Cocky." "Hard-core businessman." "Knowledgeable." "Wealthy and self-serving." "Successful in business." "Hopeful." "Unlikable." "Leader." Business savvy." "Rich and cocky." "Rich child." "Not sure he's running for the right reason." "Understanding." "Old-fashioned." "Caring."
As the group talked, it was clear that their disappointment with Obama had not convinced many of them that it was time to switch to Romney. But they're obviously persuadable. What might help them make a decision? Luntz gave them a chance to rate some of the political ads they've seen this season.
Some ads are atrocious -- for example, nearly everybody, Democrat and Republican, can't stand MoveOn.org's ads. Others make little impression at all. But three stood out.
The first was produced by Priorities USA, the pro-Obama SuperPAC, and it features a former worker at Ampad, a company purchased by Romney's Bain Capital. The worker says that one day management told him and his colleagues to construct a stage. A short time later, all employees were called to a meeting, and management stood on the stage to announce that everyone was being laid off. "Turns out when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin," the worker says.
The spot was well received by the group, and Luntz, referring to previous groups as well, called it "the single best-testing ad we have had in the campaign." He asked one group member if he thinks Romney is greedy. "Yes, the man replies.
"Why?" asked Luntz.
"Because he has $200 million in outside banks that he got from shutting these companies down."
Whatever criticism Republicans and even some Democrats make of the Bain ads, look for them to keep running -- a lot -- in several key states.
The other two ads that stood are pro-Romney ads. The first was produced by the Republican National Committee and features a side-by-side show of Obama making similar promises in 2008 and again, in virtually the same words, in 2012. But the ad that got the best response was a spot produced by Americans for Prosperity, the pro-Romney SuperPAC, featuring people who voted for Obama and have now become disillusioned. The focus group members were very impressed.
"They're us," one said. "Those people could be anybody sitting right here in this room."
"They weren't bashing [Obama]," said another. "They weren't being mean, they weren't being nasty."
"They're real people," said another. "It was like your friend called you on the phone and you were talking to them."
The disappointment with Obama was impossible to miss. And it was perfectly acceptable to talk about. Yet these undecideds who voted for Obama in 2008 do not want to see the president criticized too harshly; another way to say it is that they do not want their own judgment criticized too harshly. They prefer to have their disappointment reinforced.
The president has only himself to blame. "Obama's problem is not what he's done, but what he promised he would do," Luntz told reporters after the session. With disappointment so widespread, the question is whether Romney can capitalize on it. After a summer of campaigning, after a carefully-staged Republican convention, he's made progress, but he's still not there. But he has a great opportunity to get there by Election Day. "If Romney proves in the debates that he's not a bad guy," added Luntz, "he wins the election."