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Why focus groups' incredulity matters

<p>&lt;p&gt;It seems like ages ago, but in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Republican policymakers pushed for what they called an &amp;quot

It seems like ages ago, but in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Republican policymakers pushed for what they called an "economic stimulus" bill. The GOP plan was absurd -- the "stimulus" was a massive corporate giveaway, tilted towards the richest of the rich. Even the Wall Street Journal admitted the plan "mainly padded corporate bottom lines."

Democrats, eager to expose the ridiculous GOP agenda, convened focus groups to sharpen the message, but quickly ran into trouble: voters thought it was impossible that the GOP would actually do this. Paul Krugman explained at the time that the Republican stimulus "was so extreme that when political consultants tried to get reactions from voter focus groups, the voters refused to believe that they were describing the bill accurately."

I couldn't help but think of this when I saw a report yesterday on the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities Action USA, which ran into similar trouble telling voters about Mitt Romney.

[Bill] Burton and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan -- and thus championed "ending Medicare as we know it" -- while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing. [emphasis added]

As Jon Chait put it, focus group participants were hearing accurate descriptions, but the truth "struck those voters as so cartoonishly evil that they found the charge implausible."

Imagine how frustrating this must be to Democratic strategists. They can tell a room full of voters the truth about Romney's agenda, and a whole lot of folks respond, "That can't be right."

I can appreciate the underlying problem here: voters have been confronted with a lot of wild accusations over the years, and have become largely inured to the hyperbole. When the American mainstream hears about Candidate A or Party B supporting some radical policy, it assumes, just as a matter of course, that the claims come with built-in exaggerations. It's "just politics."

Except, sometimes, it's not.

To a certain extent, I suspect this is why the Republican Party didn't pay a severe price for the debt-ceiling crisis they created last year. In reality, the entire Republican Party threatened to crash the American economy, on purpose, and trash the full faith and credit of the United States, deliberately, unless Democrats met a series of non-negotiable demands. It was, to my mind, the most scandalous tactic adopted by a major party since the Civil War, but the American mainstream never responded that way -- in part because the media characterized the crisis as being the fault of "both sides," and in part because it seemed so hard to believe that literally every Republican in Washington would hold America hostage, threatening to do severe damage to the nation and its people unless they got their way.

But these assumptions are wrong. In the case of Romney, the Republican really does support a budget plan that would scrap Medicare and give tax breaks to millionaires. He really is planning to eliminate Wall Street safeguards and take away health care benefits from millions. He really believes the country will be better off if more teachers and police officers are laid off, and foreclosures continue unabated.

This isn't a liberal caricature based on election-year demagoguery; this is Mitt Romney's policy agenda.

If the American mainstream assumes accurate descriptions of Romney's plans are literally unbelievable, voters may be in for a shock early next year.