Obama's Likeability Is Not Enough to Win Back and Hold Independents Posted on April 12, 2012 | Focus Group

As part of our Target Voter Series, Resurgent Republic sponsored four focus groups among Independent voters in Denver, Colorado and Richmond, Virginia. These respondents all voted for President Obama in 2008, but are undecided on the generic presidential ballot today. Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, the focus groups were split by gender.

In 2008 President Obama won a majority of the national vote due to his strong performance among Independents (52 to 44 percent), and as a result, he began his presidency with a deep reservoir of goodwill among swing voters. Due to Obama’s fiscal policies, it didn’t take long for his support among this target demographic to fray, as shown in our inaugural April 2009 national survey. A rebellion of the center erupted in 2010 as Democrats lost control of the House and were defeated in several battleground gubernatorial races. Ever since that point, President Obama has sought to win back swing voters, a task that will undoubtedly continue to Election Day.

Key Findings

After three-and-a-half years of his presidency, these Obama Independents still like the President, even if they moderately disapprove of the job he is doing. Yet the President’s personal likeability does not prevent many of these Independents from concluding (1) Obama has not delivered according to their expectations and (2) things are not getting better when considering the overall trend line from 2009 to today. The battle for swing voters will evolve once a Republican nominee emerges, but President Obama remains in a precarious position with these voters when their attention is focused on his record.

Additional key findings include:

  • It’s premature for politicians to take credit for any positive economic news since these voters believe the economy is improving too slowly or not at all.
  • The Independents in all four groups disapprove of both parties in Congress in clear, unmistakable terms.
  • There’s growing frustration due to the perceived abuse of government benefits, including unemployment compensation and welfare assistance.
  • Both Keystone and Solyndra are liabilities for Obama but for different reasons. The President's actions on the Keystone pipeline contradict an "all of the above" energy policy, and Solyndra puts Obama in the context of "just another politician."

President Barack Obama

  1. The "if Obama was a car" exercise provides fascinating insight as to the President's standing among these voters. Participants in all four focus groups were asked, "If President Obama was a car, what kind of car would he be and why?" Voters who still approve of President Obama do not perceive him as a risky choice, but on the other spectrum, voters who disapprove believe he hasn’t delivered and question whether he can change course moving forward. Positive responses liken Obama to practical cars: a minivan (family friendly), an Accord or Camry (not flashy or ostentatious), or a Jeep (navigates hurdles). Those who hold a more negative opinion of the President compare him to cars with persistent problems: an old luxury sports car (looks good on the outside, but what’s under the hood?), Chevy Volt (good idea, but no infrastructure to support it), or a Yugo (all flash, no dash).
  2. President Obama's strength with these voters is based upon his personal appeal not policy approval. These Independents like the President, and they praise his "family focus" and view him as more authentic than the average politician. However, participants' personal regard for President Obama does not transfer to his policies. When asked what they like most about the President, participants refer almost solely to personal traits like his character and speaking skills. At best, they credit President Obama for trying, but offer minimal support for his policies, including the economic stimulus or health care reform. Compared to four years ago, these voters are not where they thought they'd be today, so as a result, they are not convinced President Obama is leading in the right direction.
  3. The most important thing to remember this November: numbers matter. Voters can explain away economic numbers when considering them one by one. For example, they rationalize that Obama can’t be solely blamed for the unemployment rate because he inherited a bad situation or that federal spending is worse today because of wars already underway when he came to office. However, the big picture of where the country is today compared to 2009 is too much for them to justify. As much as these voters like Obama, the "Obama by the Numbers" sheet is akin to catching the President with his hand in the cookie jar. Participants express concern regarding debt per person, Americans in poverty, overall federal debt, home values, gas prices, and health insurance costs. For the most part, they find all the data points problematic and interrelated. The weight of all the figures combined leaves some voters unsure if the country can "afford Obama for another four years."

Political Climate and the Economy

  1. These Independents express their disapproval with Congress in clear, unmistakable terms. "Our representatives are voting in the best interests of themselves, not us," noted a frustrated Richmond man. It's not a surprise that Congress is unpopular with swing voters, but the intensity of their disregard should not be overlooked. Participants in all four groups feel Congress looks out for itself, fails to care about the people they represent and is beholden to special interests. These voters decry partisanship on both sides of the aisle, saying that even if someone has a good idea, the opposing party automatically shoots it down. Voters' ire was largely directed toward the legislative branch, but stories of financial waste and abuse in the executive branch (i.e., GSA spending details) could spread animosity beyond Congress and become more problematic for the Obama Administration.
  2. There's growing anger and frustration with the perceived abuse of unemployment benefits. A recurring theme in these groups was the belief that people are gaming the government benefit system, specifically unemployment compensation. They shared stories of how individuals abuse food stamps at the local grocery store and how parents who receive government benefits pick up their children at school in new luxury cars. These voters disapprove of the length of time people can receive unemployment benefits and believe such a system creates a disincentive to work. They feel like they are personally working harder than before while others play by a different set of rules.
  3. The discussion of who should get any credit for better than expected economic news is not something these voters have even considered. There have been 18 months of consecutive job growth and the national unemployment rate has declined to 8.2 percent from its peak of 10.1 percent in October 2009. Yet the notion that anybody should take credit for these figures was completely foreign primarily because they believe things are improving too slowly or not at all. One Richmond woman summed up the economic pressure she feels today by saying, "My budget just gets tighter. Gas is going up, food is going up, and insurance does not cover as much as it used to...but my paycheck stays the same." When considering elected officials, their affinity for President Obama is not due to his economic policies. Discussion about congressional Republicans being a check and balance on the President’s policies is lost in their overarching frustration with Washington as a whole. In short, these voters are more likely to credit any positive economic news to hard working individuals and families than politicians.
  4. These Independents remain mostly negative about the economy. Similar to our other demographic groups, these voters are pessimistic about the direction of the economy. They summarize the economy with descriptors like "poor," "ailing," "sad," and "erratic." Some did express a glimmer of hope that things are slowly improving, but others say the economy is actually worse than what the unemployment rate reflects. Their evaluation of the economy is colored almost entirely by their own circumstances. Some respondents note increased work hours and an improving housing market. Others feel they are working harder than before, taking on extra jobs, but left with little to show for it. Another Richmond woman concluded, "There's a difference between wanting a job and wanting a career."


  1. There is little awareness of what an "all of the above" energy strategy means. The debate over domestic energy production was top of mind for many of these Independents, especially the financial impact of increasing gas prices. Yet these voters struggle to define an "all of the above" energy policy – the popular phrase used inside the Beltway had not penetrated with these voters. Once it was described as oil, gas, coal, nuclear power, solar and other alternative energies, participants became enthusiastic and view such a strategy as credible and necessary to becoming more energy independent.
  2. Regarding his decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama is perceived as beholden to environmental groups according to these voters. Swing voters typically follow political debates from afar, but these voters are very familiar with the Keystone pipeline and President Obama's decision to delay its approval. "I don't understand why [Obama] opposes the Keystone pipeline. It must be because of the environmentalists," said a Denver man. They perceive President Obama as being more concerned about his support among environmental groups than increasing domestic energy production, which they believe can move forward in a safe manner. They also feel it is inconsistent for elected officials to claim support of an "all of the above" energy strategy but fall short of advancing all of those policies. For the Obama Administration, the Keystone debate creates a different set of challenges than rising gas prices. Frustration over gas prices is often spread among oil companies, world events, and Washington policies. Yet regarding Keystone, President Obama is primarily on the hook. While there was overall support for the Keystone pipeline, some voters thought the new jobs would be temporary and the primary purpose of the pipeline is to export oil overseas. Those advocating for the Keystone pipeline should highlight the lasting economic benefits and how the project boosts domestic production.
  3. The discussion of Solyndra knocks President Obama off his pedestal and remakes him as "just another politician" according to these voters. In contrast to Keystone, the debate over Solyndra did not appear to be as widely known among all of these groups. For instance, the Independent women in Colorado were largely unfamiliar with the issue. Yet this issue has significant staying power. One simple fact makes it difficult for these participants to brush off Solyndra – the loss of over a half billion taxpayer dollars. Moreover, Solyndra’s details – how the loan was approved and the political connections of those involved – cause some of these voters to believe Obama is "just another politician."


The Target Voter Series is a project of 24 focus groups among Obama Independents who are undecided on the generic presidential ballot. The focus groups are taking place in 11 battleground states among six key demographic groups (Suburban Women, Young Voters, Seniors, Independents, Hispanics, and Blue Collar Catholics). This is the fourth of six memos to be released in the series.

Denver, Colorado
March 12, 2012
Self-Identified Independents / Groups Split by Gender
Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies

Richmond, Virginia
March 26, 2012
Self-Identified Independents / Groups Split by Gender
Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies

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