Presidential election swing voters just want answers, say experts
By Brad Bumsted and Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 10:45 p.m.
Democrats and Republicans spent millions to court faithful voters at the parties' conventions, but a small percentage of undecided voters who aren't swayed by rhetoric could decide the November election between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, experts say.
Identifying and reaching swing voters will be key as the campaigns grind onward, toward a series of presidential debates that begin on Oct. 3.
Pollsters say the candidates are tied among independents and their speeches to America at the conventions in Tampa and Charlotte probably didn't persuade all of the undecided voters to choose sides. Recent polls show the candidates running neck-and-neck.
“Neither ideologues nor status-quo managers suggest they possess the right stuff to excite the few undecided voters during times like these,” said Curt Nichols, a political science professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Undecided voters make up 6 percent to 12 percent of the electorate, several experts said. They're often pragmatic, less partisan and non-ideological people who want candidates to clarify issues and present policy details on such things as health care, Medicare and foreign policy.
“These people are sort of torn,” said G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, whose surveys in Pennsylvania found many swing voters are suburban, college-educated, culturally liberal and fiscally conservative. Romney connects to them on the economy by saying Obama made their lives worse; Obama connects to them on cultural issues such as gay marriage, Madonna said. The group includes more women than men.
Some undecided voters lost jobs or know someone who did, so the weak economy and perceptions of how each candidate would foster its recovery will influence them.
Employers added 96,000 jobs in August, a weak figure that could slow any momentum Obama hoped to gain from his convention speech. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July, the Labor Department said, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
Information technology specialist Victor Reavis, 41, of Charlotte said he's held four jobs in the past four years because “small businesses don't convert contract employees into full-time employees in this economy.” A Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008, he wavered for a while until deciding to vote for Romney. The economy drove his decision.
“I drive 120 miles back and forth to work every day,” said Reavis, a father of two young children. “Everything is unstable — jobs, economy, food and energy costs, and health care.”
Reavis watched prime-time TV coverage of convention speeches and said: “Romney sold me.”
Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, and others said former President Bill Clinton tailored his remarks on Obama's behalf to appeal to undecided voters.
“President Clinton started that move to go for independent voters. Everything he said and talked about could be construed that way,” said Michael Morrill, executive director of Keystone Progress, a liberal-leaning research group. Morrill attended the convention as a guest.
Small slice of the electorate
The campaigns identify swing voters through “micro-targeting” — compiling profiles of magazine subscriptions that show areas of interest and attempting to discern eating habits, social connections and cultural habits from that information, Madonna said. Companies compile and sell such data.
Jim Lee, president of Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research, pegs the number of undecided voters at 10 percent in Pennsylvania. A big unknown is how many will vote on Nov. 6, he said.
About 73 percent of undecided voters who answered Lee's recent surveys said the country is heading in the wrong direction, and 3 in 4 described themselves as conservative on fiscal issues — suggesting they're potential votes for Romney, he said.
“The Republicans have served up the question — ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?' — that the president can't answer easily,” said Steve McMahon, Democratic co-founder of Washington-based Purple Strategies.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told the Tribune-Review that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, can win by offering serious solutions to the nation's problems. That will especially reach people who are rethinking their support for the president, he said.
“Obama turned out to be a different person than we thought he was,” Priebus said. “We are going to offer them a candidate with a record of turning things around.”
“The question for the Democrats is, can they convince these same voters that Republicans simply intend to return to old habits?” said Nichols of Baylor.
American politics is cyclical, with long eras of stability interrupted by short periods that reorder the status quo, such as now, Nichols said.
“Winners must convince that they are agents of reform,” he said. “They cannot win by simply offering to provide better management of a status quo that fewer and fewer are certain of.”
“Obama yielded on the economy; he gave that one to Romney,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist in Washington. But for Romney to win, “he needs to add another reason to close the deal,” he said. “So, it could be the deficit, or spending, or big government.”
Todd expressed surprise that the Democrats worked so hard to invigorate their base at their convention.
“Everyone had the same speechwriter,” he said.
Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina, said he's surprised so few undecided voters remain in this election cycle. Obama leads in battleground states, he said, and the polling suggests little movement.
“Everyone is fighting for a very narrow space,” he said.
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