Frank Luntz: Will Republicans (and Democrats) listen to what voters are telling us?

I was in the room eight years ago – almost to the day – on an incredibly chilly Iowa winter night when then-Senator Barack Obama declared: ‘They said this day would never come…’  And I was in New York City Tuesday night as President Obama took to the podium to deliver his eighth and final State of the Union address to the nation.  I saw the beginning, and I am witnessing the end.

And I wasn’t alone.  Twenty-two voters (12 had voted for him in the past, 10 never did) listened to the address for just over an hour.  They weren’t poisoned by the pundits or biased by the blogs.  They were simply 22 average Americans.

What was their verdict?

A good speech, not a great one.  The right tone, but perhaps not the right agenda.  A good effort that covered up not so good results.  The common refrain among those who liked the speech: ‘He was hopeful and inspiring.’  And among those who disliked the speech: ‘He was dishonest, delusional, and full of hot air.’  It should come as no surprise that one of his prize lines of the night with Republicans came early: ‘I’m going to try to keep this short…’

In short, nothing out of the ordinary from a nation so bitterly divided.  So here are the key takeaways…

1. Change.  Change. Change.  Did I mention change?  Obama did – more so (23 times), I surmise, than any State of the Union in history.  Indeed, President Obama is ending his term where candidate Obama began it: with a proud and passionate promotion of change.  As the adage goes: say something three times and it transforms from assertion to fact.  The candidate of change took every opportunity on Tuesday evening to return to his rhetorical roots – while also dining out on his oft used phrase: ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ 

It’s what voters want to hear – but they need to see it to believe it.

2. CONGRESS is to blame for the broken City on a Hill.  It’s time for GOP pollsters to acknowledge what we are seeing in our polls and hearing in our focus groups: Congressional Republicans are in trouble.  Too many were silent during the events of 2006 that led to the Democratic rout.  Well, it’s happening again.

In a moment of contrition, President Obama lamented his failure to remedy the entrenched partisanship that still festers Washington – noting: ‘…the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.’"

Fortunately for him, the vast majority of voters in my focus group – Republican and Democrat alike – blame Congress for this quandary; a body with an approval rating hovering just north of 13 percent.  As one put it: ‘A top Republican said right out of the gate that his #1 priority was to make Obama a one term president – how do you negotiate with that?’"

Voters of all political stripes agree: we need to stop quarreling and start cooperating.  Advantage, Obama.   

3. Preaching to the political choir.  The president took the opportunity to tip his cap one final time to the political passions and persuasions of the left. 

He checked off early and often a litany of liberal priorities: from raising the minimum wage to equal pay for equal work to fixing the broken immigration system (in a manner that does not require a big, beautiful, Mexican-funded border wall). 

His highest dialed line of the night -– and perhaps a subtle nod to Bernie Sanders?  ‘We must reduce the influence of money in politics.’  The Democratic dials hit a 97 (out of a maximum of 100).  For the left, perfection.

And while a few of his policy and principle proclamations had Republicans turning their dials up (quality and affordable education … protecting Social Security and Medicare, for example), the rhetoric did not match the record. As they see it, Barack Obama is a salesman whose product simply fell short of the pitch. 

4.  ‘Priority #1 is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks.’ That may be what he said, but it isn’t what Republicans heard

In fact, nothing upset Republicans more than the claim that America is stronger and safer thanks to his efforts. They audibly gasped (which rarely happens when watching something political with two dozen strangers) when he said Iran is disarming; rolled their eyes (and turned their dials down) when he said we are ‘hunting down and killing terrorists’; and quite literally laughed out loud when he decreed that ‘The United States is still the strongest nation on Earth.’ 

His GOP dial scores cratered to the lowest point of the night with his continuing commitment to close Guantanamo.

5. Nikki Haley – a star (Vice President) is born?  Not since Governor Tim Kaine in 2006 has a State of the Union response garnered such high dial scores in one of my SOTU dial sessions.

Other than when she took a bat to ObamaCare, her dial scores were mostly in positive territory among Democrats and astronomical among Republicans. 

The reason: she acknowledged Obama’s historic ’08 election, and adroitly accepted the Republican’s share of responsibility for the current state of hostile politics. 

She did what every voter wants to hear: express respect for her opponent(s) and hold herself accountable.  As a result, voters from both sides used words like ‘pointed and professional,’ ‘genuine,’ and ‘hopeful’ to describe her response. 

Republicans and many Democrats nodded in unison when asked if she was V.P. material.