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Focus group's satisfaction grows for GOP field during debate

By Tom Foreman, CNN
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Dial-testing the GOP debate
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Randomly chosen group reacts to debate with hand-held "perception analyzers"
  • Southern Methodist University researchers say each candidate had strong moments
  • At no point did the Republican or GOP-leaning group react negatively
  • The group's satisfaction with the field more than doubled during the debate

Rochester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- They squinted and stared, laughed and frowned and furiously twisted little gray knobs, giving political analysts a critical early look into the minds of Republican voters.

And what did researchers see there? An energized party fairly champing at the bit for the coming presidential election.

That was the scene inside the beautiful, century-old Rochester Opera House as 21 likely Republican voters watched the debate and took part in a dial test set up by Southern Methodist University.

Using handheld "perception analyzers" calibrated to register immediate reactions, members of the randomly selected group reacted to the debate as it happened. Second by second, they moved their dials to the right or to the left, indicating a positive or negative response to what they were hearing and seeing.

Southern Methodist University professors Dan Schill and Rita Kirk tracked the average response of the group to each moment of the two-hour debate, and said for starters, each candidate produced strong moments.

For instance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's highest rating of the night came when he pressed for energy independence.

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"It's time for us to have a president who really cares about finally getting America on track for energy security," the former Massachusetts governor said, and the tracking lines rose right along with his voice.

Former Godfather's Pizza mogul Herman Cain made the dials spin in his favor when he was asked about Muslim influence in the government.

"I do not believe in sharia law in American courts. I believe in American laws in American courts, period." The crowd in the debate hall roared and the lines in Rochester rose.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas pushed the lines up by lighting into imminent domain laws.

"Property and free society should be owned by the people, and it shouldn't be regulated to death by the governments, whether it's Washington, D.C., or local governments."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich drew the focus group's favor by criticizing the United States' involvement in Libya.

At no point did the response graph dip into negative territory; perhaps not surprising in a group of 13 Republicans and 8 Republican-leaning independents. Still, it is notable that every statement received a favorable response, especially when President Obama's policies were in the crosshairs.

Ninety percent of the test group came in the door saying the president's health care plan should be repealed. So both independents and Republicans perked up when Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann promised to repeal "Obamacare" and when she proclaimed that Obama will be a "one-term president."

Likewise the dial response graph spiked when Romney said he can't wait to debate President Obama on health care and asked, "Mr. President, if, in fact, you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn't you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn't? And I would have told you, Mr. President, that what you're doing will not work."

Quite simply, any attack on the Democrats worked. When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty criticized Vice President Biden as "wrong on everything" and "wrong about every major strategic decision in the modern history of the international conflict and military" the dial testers strongly approved.

But above all else, money drove the dials. A majority of the group said the economy and jobs are the most important issues in the campaign and they came to life each time a candidate addressed those.

For example, the group responded well to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum when he described his "pro-growth agenda" and his plan to "unshackle" the economy from "oppressive policy and oppressive regulation." Participants also turned the dials sharply up when Pawlenty argued for right-to-work laws and said, "The government has no business telling you what group to be a member of or not."

In the end, the dial group was asked who they felt "won" the debate. Just under half gave the nod to Bachmann, followed by Cain with 24% and Romney with 19%.

But what may most give Democrats pause is this: Before the debate, 29% of the participants said they were unsettled by the current slate of candidates for the Republican side. After two hours of listening, 71% of the focus group members leaving the debate were satisfied with their options.

As many of them said in parting, "Hey, any one of these candidates will be better than Barack Obama."

Southern Methodist University professor Dan Schill contributed to this story

 
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