Dayton, Ohio. -- There are no typical Americans, but I recently spent four hours here with 19 nice people who are surely not untypical.
The participants were divided into two focus groups. The key "screens" for recruiting the panels were: total family income from $25,000 to $75,000, suburban residence, registered voters, ideological and party balance, and an education level no higher than a bachelor's degree. (Pollster Fred Steeper, who organized the sessions, believes that panelists with advanced degrees tend to lecture, not converse.)
We were looking for the kind of voters who swing elections in swing states. Nineteen respondents aren't enough for a valid TC statistical sample, but it's hard to have a serious conversation with 500 people. Here are some sentiments and opinions that emerged, along with comments of my own.
* America. It's on the wrong track mostly because there is a moral decline. People aren't taking care of their children; we're putting too much of a burden on the schools. Too many moms are working. That's a big reason we have crime, welfare, illegitimacy.
Foolish government policies contribute to this, particularly in welfare. It wasn't this way when we were growing up (a view offered by many, including a woman aged 29). We need more discipline and personal responsibility. America is still the greatest country.
* Race. It's not a racial problem. There are plenty of whites ripping off the welfare system, plenty of white illegitimate births, plenty of white criminals. Affirmative action is OK in principle but quotas are terrible. Some panelists offered case histories of quota hiring. (One panel had no blacks on it, the other had one. The discussion was similar in both groups.)
* Candidates. Newt Gingrich: a cartoon character. Bob Dole: well-known, but for what? Jesse Jackson: a showboat. Gen. Colin Powell: walks on water. Bill Clinton: gets some sympathy. "He tried to do something," "He's doing the best he can," "Get off his back about Whitewater and sex."
* Washington. "Why don't they stop bickering and do something?" There is something wrong with government. Why can't they stop arguing? (Which is what Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich subsequently did stop doing in their New Hampshire feel-good encounter.)
* The economy. It's harder to make a living these days. You need two earners. But, said some panelists, that might just be "greed"; live on less and take care of your kids. Balance the budget, but don't cut Medicare. Cut all those silly government studies instead. Informed such cuts won't balance the budget: Don't cut Medicare! (Note: There were only a few elderly panelists.)
* Cultural issues. Hollywood better clean up its act. Television is too violent, too sexy, disgusting. Should there be censorship? Yes. Sure. You bet. By the government? Well, no, not by the government. The movie companies and the television networks ought to do it. Parents ought to do it. It's our fault, we watch the stuff.
What about homosexuality? Let people live their own lives. Gays in the military? The women don't have a problem with it. Most of the men have a big problem with it, particularly veterans. Should abortion be legal? Most think so, but you're not going to change the minds of those who don't.
* Politics. Generally, more toughness is needed. There is solid agreement that Republicans are tougher than Democrats. But right now the Dayton 19 would probably lean, grudgingly, toward Mr. Clinton. Republicans are still seen as the party of the well-off.
Go figure. The suburban Dayton panelists are smart, but they haven't noticed the big changes going on in Gingroid Washington. Are they missing something, or are we?
There is little racial animosity (unless it is taboo to mention it).
The Republicans have to try to convince voters that they can get tough but not mean, that they think about plain people, and that Democrats are softies and softness is one cause of our problems.
The Democrats have to show that Republicans are tough and mean, that they do not think about plain people, and that Democrats can also be for discipline, responsibility and toughness.
Political campaigns are designed to define yourself and your opponent. The party that is most successful in defining itself in Dayton is the probable winner.
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."