Changing Minds

Lots of Americans tuned into the Democratic convention in Los Angeles last week, but few were paying closer attention than a group of Philadelphia swing voters. Several weeks ago, the 36 voters scrutinized each night of the Republican convention as part of a focus group sponsored by MSNBC and yrock.com. This week, NEWSWEEK talked with some of those same voters to see whether they'd watched the Democratic show--and whether it had changed their opinions.

Before both conventions, all three-dozen voters said they had not settled on a candidate. Although one third of the voters were registered Republicans; one-third registered Democrats and one-third independents, the group leaned slightly to the left. Twenty four of the participants voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Even so, at the end of the GOP gathering, 35 of the 36 said they had more favorable impressions of Gov. George W. Bush and seven said they were now leaning toward voting for him rather than Vice President Al Gore. Though the group is too small to make for a reliable poll, their opinions do offer some insight into what other swing voters might be thinking. Both the Gore and Bush campaigns are eager to woo undecided voters like these. They are swing voters from surburban Philly--a swing area of a swing state--and they are the political holy grail this election season.

Our admittedly unscientific NEWSWEEK sampling of the Philly focus group showed that Gore had indeed made some inroads. The registered Democrats in the group now seemed energized about their party's pick. "I was very impressed with Gore and I do like [vice presidential pick Joe] Lieberman," says Anne Vasature, a Democrat who'd been undecided before the conventions. Gore exceeded her expectations in his speech. "He was very dynamic," says Vasature, 57, a pizza shop worker. She had voted for Clinton in 1992, but for Bob Dole in 1996. Now she's "pretty much decided" she'll vote for Gore. Steve Golden, 54, another registered Dem who has voted for both Reagan and Clinton, had been impressed by Bush, but worried about his stands on abortion and religious issues. He leaned toward Gore after Philly--and what he saw in Los Angeles just reassured him. Golden was impressed by the boldness of Gore's veep pick. He also liked the specificity of the L.A. speeches. Gore and Lieberman "both got up there and they discussed issues in much more detail than even Bush did," says Golden, a structural engineer.

Registered Republicans were less impressed. "I was not swayed by Gore," says Jack Hanel, 50, a consulant who lives in suburban Philly. He'd been leaning toward Bush after the GOP convention. "I thought his goals were realistic and attainable, good for America," says Hanel. Gore, on the other hand, was "acting like Santa Claus, giving everything to everybody." Hanel didn't buy Gore's new, looser persona, either. "He's still cold, stiff and uncaring to me," he says. Hanel also views Bush as more of a "statesman" than Gore.

Independent voters remained a mixed bag. Gladys Plotnick, an independent who'd been impressed by Bush's speech several weeks ago, now says she's 90 percent certain she'll vote for Gore. "He showed such integrity, sincerity, such feeling for the people--the blue-collar people," says Plotnick, 54, a secretary. She liked Gore's stance on the issues as well as his new style. "He's not walking in the shadow of the current president," Plotnick says. "He's his own man." While she would have once used the word "boring" to describe Gore, Plotnick now sees him as "humble." But Richard Supa, a 24-year-old waiter, thought the Democratic convention still veered to much to the political center. "I watched it, but it didn't change my views," says Supa, who still plans to vote for Ralph Nader. He'd looked forward to speeches by liberal firebrands like Ted Kennedy, but found even those wanting. "They're not liberal enough," says Supa. "It's a lot of rhetoric."

All of the focus group voters contacted by NEWSWEEK said they'd watched the Democratic convention in great detail. Some even took notes and printed out transcripts of speeches. And all said they planned to study the fall debates carefully. Though the televised head-to-head matchups could be the deciding factor for many swing voters, others admitted they would probably waver until the last minute. Saysd Hanel: "I may not make up my mind until I get in the booth."

Changing Minds | News