Joe the Plumber a Drain for McCain?

Boy, plumbers haven’t made such a splash around the political scene since the Watergate days.

Joe the Plumber became America’s latest instant celebrity after John McCain repeatedly refered to him in the final presidential debate on Wednesday night. McCain seized on his story after video footage surfaced from earlier in the week of Joe Wurzelbacher — that’s Joe the Plumber’s real name — quizzing Barack Obama over his tax plans. Wurzelbacher, a single father from outside of Toledo, wanted to know if his taxes would go up under Obama if he bought a plumbing business that he said would bring him annual income over $250,000.

McCain repeatedly cited Joe’s story as he tried to convince voters that average working Americans would fare better under his economic program than they would under those of his rival. Joe quickly became a media sensation, generating more media buzz around the Arizona Senator’s campaign than it has seen since the days after he named Sarah Palin. Joe was interviewed by Katie Couric on CBS, gave a series of impromtu press conferences and garnered headlines all across the country. And by mid-afternoon on Thursday, McCain’s campaign released an ad on You Tube featuring Obama’s encounter with Joe.

All of which begs a rather obvious question: did leaning so heavily on Joe actually help McCain?

Certainly, not all of the media attention was the kind the campaign may have welcomed. The internet quickly filled up with stories pointing out a few problems with Joe's story: according to the New York Times, he's not a licensed plumber and he may owe back taxes. Bloomberg weighed in with more details on his potential tax issues, while Newsweek pointed out that he would probably do better under Obama's tax plans than under McCain's. Meanwhile, conservative strategist Martin Eisenstadt pointed out that Wurzelbacher may have links to Charles Keating, the savings and loan executive at the heart of the Keating 5 political scandal that ensnared McCain in the late 1980s.

Perhaps more important, according to two pollsters who conducted focus groups of undecided voters during the debate, undecided voters don't seem to have thought much of McCain's use of Joe. Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner quizzed 50 such voters in Denver during the final face-off between the candidates. Their response to McCain's Joe the Plumber riffs? The room filled with "a lot of snickering," he says. "They didn't view it as authentic."

That's one reason, says Greenberg, that his group of voters emerged from the debate with a more favorable view of Obama on taxes. At the beginning of the debate, 42% of the undecideds thought Obama had a better position on taxes than McCain, while 20% favored McCain's position. Ninety minutes later, Obama was ahead 52% to 20%. "Taxes are a central issue; in order to change the race, McCain had to erode Obama on taxes," says Greenberg. According to his focus group, that didn't happen.

Now, some might dismiss those views as predictable, coming from Greenberg: he's a prominent Democratic pollster who works with uber-Dem strategist James Carville. Together, the pair are behind Democracy Corps, a progressive polling and strategy group. A full report on the Denver focus group is available here, on their site.

But Frank Luntz, a well-known Republican pollster who was conducting a focus group with 23 undecided voters in Miami Wednesday night, found much the same reaction.

Luntz says McCain's use of Joe to make his case to average Americans seemed a good idea at first, but it became gimmicky and lost its effectiveness as the night wore on. "It worked initially to help humanize the argument McCain was making. But the idea was beaten to death; people didn't like it because they heard it too much," he adds. By the final time McCain highlighted Joe in the debate, Luntz adds, "one of the guys in the room was shouting 'enough already.'"

The reaction to Joe appears to be one of many reasons why the undecided voters in both groups, like many other polls, gave the third debate to Obama.

Among Greenberg's Denver voters, 8% leaned slightly towards McCain at the beginning, while 4% slightly favored Obama; 88% were undecided. By the end of the debate, 20% prefered McCain, while 42% said they were in Obama's camp.

As for Luntz's group of 23 voters in Miami, 4 were leaning towards McCain at the start, 3 were leaning towards Obama, and 16 were undecided. As the night drew to a close, 4 people had shifted to Obama, while McCain didn't pick up anyone.

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