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Focus Grouping the 2008 Dem Field

Frank Luntz, the on-again, off-again Republican pollster, has released the results of two recent focus groups he conducted in Iowa and New Hampshire aimed at gauging voter sentiment toward the potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidates.

Luntz said that his firm paid for the focus groups on its own but that the genesis of the project grew from a poll he did for a client testing how Democratic primary voters viewed the inheritance tax. Fix readers are urged to take Luntz's conclusions with a grain of salt, though the reactions of the focus group participants are very intriguing.

In each state, Luntz asked groups of 30 likely Democratic primary voters what they were looking for in a presidential candidate, and then showed them approximately ten minutes of television clips of each of the likely candidates. Among the candidates included in the focus groups were: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), ex-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Russ Feingold (Wisc.), Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.).

After reading through the results a few times, there is a clear winner and a clear loser:

Winner: Mark Warner fared the best of the candidates in the eyes of voters in both New Hampshire and Iowa. His main appeal, according to participants, is his personal story (public school education, successful entrepreneur, red state governor) and a solid stump speech that outlines those accomplishments. As a result, Warner "gained more ground" among participants during the focus groups than any other candidate, according to Luntz. "He has the story and the campaign chops to make a big impact," Luntz writes.

Loser: Although half of the focus group was held in his home state, Tom Vilsack failed to make much of a positive impression. Vilsack's community-themed speech, which focuses heavily on values and religion, did not strike a chord with the focus group participants. One participant described Vilsack as "very scary" and "too Christian." Not exactly a winning formula for the Iowa governor, at least when it comes to the Democratic presidential primary.

The other candidates with a real chance at the nomination (Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, Bayh) received mixed reviews for their taped performances:

* Clinton, the clear frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, started with a strong amount of support but struggled to pick up new backers among the focus groups, largely because of concerns about her electability. Those concerns are rooted in Clinton's image as a highly partisan politician, according to the Luntz focus groups. "She's got Bush-bashing down to a science," writes Luntz. "Now she needs to show primary voters that she has the best alternative approach out there."

* Edwards benefited from considerable goodwill from his 2004 presidential primary bid and slot as Kerry's vice presidential nominee. As was the case in 2004 (and in his first election to the Senate in 1998), Edwards's good looks and connectivity with voters are his greatest assets among participants in the Luntz focus groups. "His words and the way he delivers them have impact," writes Luntz. Interestingly, though, when Edwards speaks to his signature issue -- poverty -- some in the focus groups found his rhetoric hollow, perhaps because most participants didn't like hearing it from an individual as affluent as Edwards, Luntz suggests.

* Kerry seems to be suffering from the uniquely Democratic Party phenomenon of dismissing unsuccessful candidates for the presidency. "Kerry's 100 percent name ID is loaded with baggage," says Luntz. While Kerry's stump speech registered positively with Iowa voters, the reality is that many Democrats may not be listening anymore -- seeing Kerry as yesterday's news.

* Bayh struggled to make an impression -- good or bad -- with the focus groups. Much of that ambivalence seems born from the fact that while the Indiana senator says all the right things on policy, his delivery leaves something to be desired. One major bright spot for Bayh in the focus groups, however, is that his moderate issue stances do not seem to hamstring him with Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 31, 2006; 6:13 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008  
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