Veteran pollster Peter Hart asked an assistant to tack up photos of the Republican presidential hopefuls on the wall. If this person were not a politician, what profession would he or she be in, he asked the group, pointing to each candidate in turn.
Romney's picture evoked some positive connections -- "minister," said one participant. "Businessman," offered another. But most answers carried a derisive sting: "TV pitchman," "actor," "salesman."
For five months, one after another of Romney's rivals -- Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain -- have crashed. Yet despite piles of money, impressive organization and the experience of having run for the White House before, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has not profited from his rivals' declines, remaining stuck in place.
Why have Republicans not rallied to him? Polls offer limited help with such questions. They can show what sorts of voters support each candidate, but getting at motivation typically requires more time than a 20-minute survey allows.
A better tool is a well-designed focus group, such as the one that Hart moderated Thursday night, one of a series he is conducting on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Four strong supporters of the tea party movement; a couple of the movement's critics; a young, male libertarian; several people strongly concerned about traditional values, a Realtor, a sales rep, a couple of bookkeepers, a stay-at-home mother of four -- white, with an average age in the mid-40s, the 11 registered Republicans and one independent answering Hart's questions provided a cross section of the ideologies and occupational groups that define the GOP electorate.
Their candidate preferences, at least at the discussion's outset, were scattered among seven of the eight candidates, with only former Sen. Rick Santorum lacking any supporter.
All expressed deep concern about the country and its direction. Hart asked for a word or phrase about the American condition: "Afraid," "frustrated" "unsettled" "misguided" "worried" "losing control," they said.
"I'm concerned about my children's future," said Deborah, a 55-year-old administrative assistant. In response to a follow-up question, not one said the next generation would be better off than the current one.
And yet, few displayed the anger so prominently on display during the run-up to the 2010 election. Asked about President Obama, one did call him a "liar." More common, however, were complaints about weak leadership and a failure to achieve results. Two participants volunteered that their families had benefited from Obama's healthcare law, particularly its provision that allows children up to age 26 to stay on their parents' health plans.
The group was partisan by design, yet their dejection about politicians had a bipartisan cast. None said that the Republican congressional leadership had lived up to their expectations.
And although all shared a strong desire to see Obama defeated in November's election, none showed particular excitement about the current slate of Republicans hoping to run against him.
A focus group can probe the reasons for that sort of low enthusiasm. The art lies in asking questions that get at the emotional associations voters form toward candidates.
In the case of Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who now stands as Romney's chief rival, positive associations outnumbered the negatives. Members of the group were aware of some potential problems: "Volatile" "combustible" and "opinionated" were among the adjectives offered to describe Gingrich, and several brought up his three marriages and acknowledged affairs.
Yet images of strength and experience dominated the conversation about him.
Asked to rate the candidates on whether they were qualified or competent to be president, 10 of the 12 rated Gingrich at the top of their scale, with none rating him at the bottom.
Romney drew a more mixed report, with seven rating him at the top of the scale on competence and two toward the bottom. "Family values" "knows how to create jobs" "can handle pressure" were among the compliments the group offered him. But there were also these: "goes with whatever people want to hear" and "no charisma."
The deeper problem Romney appears to face became evident, however, when Hart posed questions designed to get beyond the traditional "political" attributes and reach more personal connections.
If the candidate were a member of your family, who would he be, Hart asked. Gingrich came first, drawing comparisons to a grandfather, a father, a favorite uncle.
Then came Romney's turn and far more distant associations: "neighbor," "cousin" "twice removed." "Richer than the rest of us, so he wouldn't come to our events," said Christine, 38. "The dad who's never home," added Chris, 27, and the group's chief supporter of Ron Paul.
Hart offered another scenario: Imagine the candidate at an airline ticket counter, badly needing to catch a flight. Five people are in line ahead of him, and only one ticket remains. What would the candidate do?
Romney, the group said, would try to buy his way to the front.