Paul Begala once told me a story about Ann Richards, the former Governor of Texas who lost to George W. Bush in 1994. He said after Richards lost her re-election she told Bill Clinton that he was going to lose in 1996 because he was making the same mistake she made in 1994. Richards told Clinton she lost because she was so busy telling voters what she had done that she never told them what she was going to do.
Last night in Atlanta, I put together a panel of undecided voters. 45 were invited. 35 showed up. There were more women than men. The ages ranged based on the most likely turnout of Republican Primary voters. All of them, in a detailed survey, had come across as strongly undecided.
Almost to a person they said they remained undecided because none of the candidates had yet really made the case for what they were going to do, but wanted everyone to know what they had already done. Jeb Bush came in for this the most. Everyone in the room knew he was a conservative Governor of Florida, but that he had been out of office for some time and was now only able to hang on because of his last name.
Of the 35 people, they were unanimous that Jeb Bush could not persuade them to support him. Donald Trump proved very divisive. The men favored him more than the women. Some of those who praised him the most still said they’d ultimately not vote for him. They appreciated his willingness to speak loudly on issues like immigration that no one else wanted to talk about, but they just though him too brash.
The voters were divided on Trump’s Muslim immigration proposal, almost split evenly. Most everyone agreed the plan had its flaws, but most everyone thought Trump should be commended for raising an issue that no one wants to address and the panel thought was a serious issue.
We also talked about the President’s proposal to use the No-Fly list as a way to control who could get access to guns. As you might imagine based on a panel of undecided Republican voters, they were unanimous that it was a bad idea. Almost all believed that there is no room to negotiate on the second amendment. The most fascinating bit was that more women in the room had concealed carry permits than the men and more of the women owned guns than the men. The room had more women than men present, but percentage wise it was a higher percentage of the women than men in both cases.
On Ben Carson, about a third of the room liked him, but only one would consider supporting him. Most thought his demeanor was too soft and almost everyone who liked him said their opinion of him diminished after his debate performances.
The most interesting part of the night came in a consideration of Rubio vs. Cruz. I asked all 35 to identify a word that they associated with both men. With Rubio, the most common word was “inexperienced.” With Cruz, the word was a variation of “accomplished.”
When I pointed out that Rubio had been in the Senate longer than Cruz, most did not realize it. Rubio’s youthful appearance, compared to Cruz looking older, affected their views on the two men. Those who really liked Rubio focused on his likability and ability to pick up moderates. Those who liked Cruz, and that was the majority, focused on Cruz’s willingness to pick fights with his own side to advance conservative policies.
I was actually not expecting the undecided voters to almost uniformly declare Rubio inexperienced. Another surprise was that while one of the voters brought up Mike Huckabee positively, not a single one brought up Carly Fiorina or Rand Paul.
After two hours of talking to these undecided voters, none left thinking they’d vote for someone. They all left with the same frustration. Despite the debates and speeches, these 35 undecided voters still don’t know what the people running for President will do, only what they’ve done. They all want to be persuaded by a vision of the future, not tales of past glory.