Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

May 2007


Legislative insight

Political intelligence




Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.










2008: Little words, big meanings?

Words are but pictures of our thoughts.

- John Dryden

Through our Decision-Maker Research, Radnor has been asking focus group participants to review several words (or short combinations of words that express a single thought) and select the few words or expressions that best describe various presidential candidates. Although not scientific, and certainly not predictive of voting behavior, the results show impressions upon which eventual support is based.

The participants are picked from the one-tenth of voters who are leaders within their circles. They are their communities' decision-makers. They follow the political process and have an impact on others' decisions. As we probe their feelings, we are not looking for percentages or trying to forecast results. We simply want to learn what these leaders think of the candidates as expressed through the words they use.

First, we sort the words into positive, neutral and negative expressions. Next, we ask participants to narrow the list until they have their most descriptive two or three for each candidate. Then, we add up the answers and find some surprising results.

The single word used most often was strong. Incidentally, it was the most frequent word participants used to describe Rudy Giuliani. Other words used frequently for Giuliani were leader, tough, decisive, confident or self-confident. Perhaps the best measure of Giuliani?s standing with participants was the fact that three out of four words used to describe Giuliani were positive words.

Reflecting the problems of prophets in their own country, Giuliani fared worst with his fellow New Yorkers, who used mostly positive but also several negative words to describe him. The negative words used for Giuliani were usually directed toward his personal life (messy, divorced) or his attitude (arrogant, abrasive, cocky). Despite increased negative media coverage, focus group participants continue to give Giuliani almost exactly the same positive-to-negative ratio as two months ago.

In gathering positive words over negative words by a three-to-one margin, Giuliani was far ahead of other candidates. Only one other candidate had over 65 percent positive and that candidate, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, was unknown to over seven of ten participants. Those who knew about Hunter and had an opinion used positive words about two-thirds of the time, but not many participants have formed an opinion about Hunter.

Clinton: Pushy, experienced

Everybody has an opinion of Hillary Clinton. Contrast the generally positive words for Giuliani with the generally negative words used to describe Clinton: Pushy was the most common negative word for Clinton, followed by opinionated, cold, nanny, shrill, know-it-all. The leading positive word used for Clinton was experienced with tough next.

Liberal was used in both a positive and a negative way to sum up Clinton. Overall, 54 percent of the words used for Clinton were negative or intended to be negative by the user (such as the word liberal when used by clearly more conservative participants, for example).

John Edwards might be unhappy to know that the words used most often for him were physical descriptions - handsome, good-looking, boyish - and a common appraisal of his character - slick - was applied regularly to only one other candidate: Mitt Romney. It seemed that the more participants knew about Edwards? positions on issues, the more likely they were to use negative words to describe him. His wife's illness caused a temporary bounce but Edwards soon reverted to his previous pattern. Perhaps the good news for Edwards was the fact that the three participants who had met him were committed to his candidacy. Apparently, he is a superior retail politician. That may be why he is doing so well in Iowa, where he spends countless days on the campaign trail. But this campaign is more about wholesale politics than retail politics. Edwards may be in trouble if he cannot gather momentum quickly with early caucus and primary victories. But the bunching of primaries in 2008 makes that unlikely.

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Barack Obama was described negatively as inexperienced and positively as fresh, interesting and - yes! - articulate. In fact, articulate was a word commonly applied to Obama and, thinking back, the focus group monitors could not recall a single instance of an African-American participant describing Obama as articulate before the flap over that word in February. After that, most black participants used ?articulate? in their appraisal of Obama, usually with a smile at their tongue-in-cheek reference and the discomfort it created for white participants. Obama was the Democrat with the best ratio of positive-to-negative words: His ratio was nearly three to two. The bad news for Obama is the fact that, as time passed from February to April, fewer participants used positive words to describe him. He is settling into neutral-word territory. Is the bloom off the rose so soon? Let's see.

Neutral on Obama

The most interesting finding about Obama is the gradual change over time from mostly positive to mostly neutral words to describe him. Also important are the reasons for the neutral words. Originally, these words seemed to be based on the participants' conclusions that he could not win: Can?t win, not electable, won?t make it. As we got to mid-April, the neutral words seemed to become general appraisals of Obama, not of his chances. Is this an early indication that Obama is headed down in the polls? With all the positive attention he is receiving, is Obama passing his peak? We will know soon.

Participants did not go out of their way to be cruel to candidates but their appraisals are stinging and convey a final judgment. The candidate who started the ?articulate? controversy, Senator Joe Biden, was summed up negatively in over 70 percent of the words used to describe him: Wordy, tired, talks-a-lot, self-adsorbed, old. Experienced was the most frequent positive word for Biden. Biden recorded the most frequent non-word: Ugh. We considered ugh to be a negative appraisal.

In 'the medium is the message' category, Senator Chris Dodd was frequently appraised as fat, overweight and old. He, too, had many more negative references than positive - by about a two to one margin. Dodd may be a victim of television?s tendency to make people appear wider than they are; the participants, however, have spoken and the negative words seem to 'outweigh' the positive experienced. The only other candidate to be labeled fat was Governor Bill Richardson. Clearly, the image consultants are correct: In this television era, appearance is important.

Spot on!

Radnor's Louis-Lyonel Voiron was about as accurate as a forecaster can be in predicting the results of the first round of the French elections. A British analyst said Voiron was 'spot on' in handicapping the French result.

Radnor predicted in early April that 'French voters will continue Europe's move to the middle. This is a reflection of the voters' rejection of the extremes as unrealistic in today's more threatening world. As we feel less secure, we take fewer chances. Candidates on the fringe, left or right, are seen as risky. Exactly because of this aversion to risk, the campaign of Centrist Bayrou is doomed. His boom is over. A vote for him could mean that the extremist Le Pen goes through again to the run-off. The voters will not tolerate that.

Look for Bayrou to try to form a new centrist party, perhaps with the familiar Social Democratic label. He will be back in future elections, but this is not his time.'

Voiron predicts a close election and says that it will be more difficult than expected for Sarkozy to put together a winning coalition, but Voiron believes that Sarkozy can win.

Full disclosure: Radnor is working on behalf of the Sarkozy campaign.

Old was the one word used most often for John McCain The second most common word for McCain was hero with experienced next. Then came tired. McCain shows a major party split that may mean he can reach across party lines: Republicans often used the word liberal to describe McCain negatively while Democrats used liberal positively. But can he escape the judgmental words old and tired? Probably not. The participants seem to see McCain and his campaign as out of steam.

Mitt Romney got the expected positive words about his good looks and the negative words about his Mormonism. He also got mostly negative words for his perceived shifts on issues. Most participants had not formed firm opinions about Romney but those who had were generally negative.

Gingrich: Smart, self-centered

Newt Gingrich is one of two undeclared candidates who generated significant comments. He was viewed positively as smart, articulate (yes!), knowledgeable. He was viewed negatively by a surprisingly large number of conservative participants (supposedly his base) who remember that he divorced his cancer-stricken wife to marry a younger woman: Self-centered, egotistical. If you expected his political leadership skills to be a strength, you may want to reconsider. He was described as a bomb-thrower, and clumsy as a leader. Many participants remember that the Federal government shut down when Gingrich tangled with President Clinton over the budget. As people did at the time, participants put the blame on Gingrich.

Former Tennessee Senator and actor Fred Thompson was seldom thought about in February. After he disclosed on a Sunday news program that he was considering running, he was among the most mentioned. The mentions, however, surprised us: About a third were negative, which is unusual for a 'new face' in a campaign. Is Thompson being compared to Reagan's ghost? That is a tough role for any actor or candidate. Still, Thompson has star power and he is generating a lot of discussion.

Senator Sam Brownback is unknown to most. Those who do know of him describe him as conservative, rigid, and pro-life. His negatives have to do with his perceived inability to be elected.

Nothing scientific but...

What does all this mean? Nothing scientific. But it gives an idea of what these leaders may tell others later as final decisions are made. The words seem to say that Clinton is not very likeable. Can she overcome that impression and her majority of negative comments? Is Giuliani the Teflon candidate in this election? Will his current positive words begin to be moderated by more negatives?

After observing the participants come to their choices of descriptive words, Radnor concludes that Giuliani is generally liked and respected and the recent negative media coverage has yet to affect his standing. Clinton is staunchly liked but just as staunchly disliked. Obama is liked but not viewed as electable and he may soon be trending downward. Edwards is liked for his personality and appearance but not liked for his issues positions. Romney is viewed skeptically, with Gingrich viewed positively on issues but negatively on personal attributes. Thompson seems to suffer in comparison with Reagan, and most candidates have not impressed Radnor's decision-makers enough to merit a comment.

Have these influential voters figured things out?



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