For much of the year, head-to-head polls of President Obama and Mitt Romney have generated eerily consistent results: Obama garners a percentage in the high 40s but not at 50 percent, with Romney either tied or slightly behind. A small total — about 5 to 8 percent — remain undecided.
Those voters could determine who wins the popular vote — and while the Electoral College vote and the popular vote can differ, it’s pretty rare.
So how will those remaining voters end up splitting? Their refusal to back the incumbent suggests a disappointment with Obama’s record that is not easily overcome, but clearly Romney has yet to “close the sale” and persuade these key voters that he can do a better job.
“Right now the undecideds are motivated by their disapproval of the president,” says Republican pollster John McLaughlin. “They want to vote against the president. However, Romney has to give them a reason to vote for him and make the Obama disapproval stick. The Obama campaign’s negative attacks on Romney have been brilliant to stall the normal anti-incumbent vote. If they can’t get them to vote for Obama, they would prefer they just disappear. Convincing them falsely or prematurely that Romney will lose can work just as well.”
For many years, politics watchers cited a rule that “undecideds split against the incumbent” with confidence — and they did have a solid amount of data to support the idea. In 1989, Nick Panagakis, a member of the National Council on Public Polls, wrote in the “Polling Report” that “our analysis of 155 polls reveals that, in races that include an incumbent, 80 percent of the time, most or all of the undecideds voted for the challenger.” In nine of the 155 races, the undecided voters split evenly; in 19, they split in favor of the incumbent.
In a less-crowded media environment, the “incumbent rule” makes a lot of sense, particularly when discussing voters who don’t examine the candidates in depth or pay attention until just before Election Day. They already know what they’re getting from the incumbent and have deemed it unsatisfactory, so they take their chances with the other major party’s option.
But there are exceptions, and the 2004 presidential race offered one of the most vivid examples. As the campaign drew to a close with a small lead for incumbent president George W. Bush, many Democrats felt confident that challenger John Kerry would finish over the top by getting about two-thirds of the remaining undecideds. But things didn’t turn out that way: “John Kerry and George Bush split the undecideds evenly, 1.1 points each, from the average of the final polls.”
“The undecideds are all ‘get-able’ for the challenger,” says former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, now head of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “That doesn’t mean they’re definitely going to vote for him, but the challenger starts with those voters being open to the option of voting for him.”
But Davis warns, “In presidential races, it’s more complicated; voters are more sophisticated about the choice at that level.” In Bush’s case, he and his campaign persuaded enough of the remaining undecideds that Kerry was an unacceptable alternative — an approach the Obama campaign is obviously emulating. In retrospect, the challenger’s advantage in most of the races where they won the bulk of the remaining votes was to be a blank slate, a generic alternative who hadn’t given the voters any reason to vote against them.
With an economic record much worse than many Democrats expected or hoped to see in 2008, the Obama campaign’s remaining option has been to make Romney unacceptable. The campaign has been quite open about this approach. A “prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House” told Politico in August 2011: “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.” Thus, Obama’s campaign and its allies shout at the remaining undecided voters that Romney is a job-killing vampire and tax felon who killed a steelworker’s wife.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff conducted the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey and isolated the respondents whom they classified as “up for grabs” — either undecided or leaning only slightly to one of the candidates. Several demographic indicators suggest that the remaining voters are ripe for the picking for Romney: 68 percent are white, 57 percent are married, 53 percent are men, 70 percent think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and 60 percent disapprove of how Obama is doing his job.
“They suck lemons,” Hart said with a chuckle on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown on Wednesday morning. “I mean, they are the sourest people I have ever — beyond really negative. ‘Neither’ is their favorite answer. . . . We’re talking about ‘up for grabs’ people, but in reality, a lot of these people are not going to vote.”
Unsurprisingly, McInturff sees a bigger opportunity for Romney.
“What tends to happen is the vote decision is driven by two things,” McInturff said. “Your feeling about the direction of the country — where 70 percent say the country is on the wrong track — and their feelings about the president’s performance, which is very negative. I don’t think Romney will get 100 percent of this vote, but I do think a chunk will vote and they will disproportionately break to Romney.”
Just about any Republican presidential candidate would be thrilled to face an election where victory comes down to persuading white married voters who think the country is on the wrong track and the Democratic incumbent is disappointing to vote for him.