Parsing Polls & Presidential Strategy

As everyone knows, the election in November will boil down to a handful of states. Romney needs to take states that Obama won in 2008 obviously. We can quibble about this state or that state being in play, but that subject will be for another entry. Suffice to say, the likely swing states this year will be: Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. Yes, I omitted states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania because I do not believe they are truly in play one way or the other just yet although they may be by the time November rolls around. Instead, I looked at the polling data thus far from these other states listed.

The first thing one notices is that in these swing states, there are very few swing voters. Among registered voters, 50% said they supported or leaned towards Obama while 46% supported or leaned towards Romney. Those were the overall numbers from these states. Hence, swing voters make up less than 10% of voters in swing states. However, in a tight race as many are predicting, a small group of swing voters can decide the outcome in a state. Indeed, any demographic can decide which way a state will go in a close election. In the data looked at, in these swing states, the swing voters were mainly white and female. But, the biggest difference between the swing voters and those supporting a candidate involve their opinion of Obama and their enthusiasm regarding even voting this year.

Swing voters, overall, have a negative view of Obama’s performance. Their views of Obama are almost akin to the Romney supporter views of Obama. That is not good news for the President. But, this also presents a problem for Romney since this same group- the swing voters- are also not very enthusiastic about voting this year. Perhaps that is because although they dislike Obama’s performance, they likewise do not see Romney as the answer. In another context, I earlier warned that this may present a problem when it became increasingly apparent Romney would be the nominee. The majority of swing voters in these swing states indicated they were not that greatly enthusiastic or not enthusiastic at all about voting in 2012. That is, they will simply sit out the election.

From Obama’s standpoint, the people he needs to win over are likely not going to support him anyway. They have a negative view of him and are unlikely to vote for him. His best hope is that these voters will simply stay home on November 6th. Hence, we may get a better picture of how the vote will go in these swing states by gauging voter turn out figures. If they are high, Obama’s chances decrease.

For Romney, the goal is to persuade these people to his side by November by taking advantage of their disapproval of Obama. Many pundits believe these voter opinions are strong predictors of voting decisions, especially when an incumbent is running. Hence, Presidential approval ratings nationwide are decidedly less important than they are in the individual states, especially the swing states. So Romney not only needs to persuade these voters that he is the anti-Obama, but he also has to get them out to vote. Part of the enthusiasm gap for Romney are those leftover doubts about his conservative credentials. That is, some of the swing voters are conservative, don’t like Obama, but are unenthusiastic about Romney as their standard bearer.

Besides a concerted effort by Romney to persuade these voters, there is another strategy that can be employed especially with respect to the conservative swing voters- state initiative and ballot questions. Unfortunately, other than the religious freedom ballot question in Florida, there are no questions that stir the cockles of a conservative’s heart. In Colorado, a religious freedom amendment initiative was dropped by its proponents since their laws make it difficult to get questions on the ballot. The only other conceivable “question” involves a concealed handgun carry initiative, but that seems to be going nowhere. In North Carolina, there is an effort on a ballot question regarding English being the official language which might draw some people to the polls and in Ohio, the only thing that might bring conservative fence-sitters is a personhood definition ballot question. In Missouri, a public prayer amendment is on the ballot, but in August in their non-presidential primary. Democratic Governor Jay Nixon made sure it made it to the primary election rather than the general election for a reason. Essentially, realizing this is an issue that will bring out conservative voters, it was best to motivate them to vote in August rather than to vote in November’s general election.

Besides the swing voters, another group that can tip an election in a swing state are unregistered persons of voting age. Looking at these figures, we can clearly see why Obama and the Justice Department are putting up roadblocks in the way of state voter ID and registration laws. It has noting to do with civil rights and everything to do with simple politics. Among unregistered voters, they tend to be young and nonwhite, which is nothing new or earth-shattering. However, Obama’s approval ratings in these swing states among these potential voters is higher than the national average and higher than the registered voter and swing voter figures. When looking at candidate preference among the currently unregistered, they clearly favor Obama (61%) over Romney (27%). Hence, even if they did register and Romney could pull the undecideds onto his side, he would lose the “new voter” vote in these swing states.

A smart Obama strategy would focus on registration and then turnout drives. However, history has shown that unregistered voters also are unenthusiastic voters. Getting them to the polls would prove a challenge. Further parsing the polls in these swing states, it is also obvious that unregistered voters are more enthusiastic about voting for Obama than they are for Romney. Simply put, if they register and if they actually vote, chances are those votes will go to Obama.

Therefore, there are two very different strategic options to each candidate. For Romney, he needs to persuade and mobilize the undecided voters in swing states. This can be done by (1) continuous hammering of Obama on economic issues, (2) making sure he shores up the conservative swing voters who may have lingering doubts about him, (3) making sure that registered voters- especially swing voters- actually show up at the polls, and (4) possibly getting hot button issues on ballots to increase turnout even if a voter is unenthusiastic about the presidential choices. For Obama, his best strategy is mobilizing supporters who are currently not registered and then getting them to the polls on November 6th. Expect Obama and the Democrats to rely on their usual cronies in this area- labor unions and community activist groups. Hence, Republican efforts should be directed, at the state level, of making sure of the integrity of the voting rolls as both these groups are notorious for registering suspect voters.

As part of the Romney strategy among undecided voters in swing states, it was mentioned that they tend to be white and female. The strategy is twofold. First, unlike 2008, Obama and especially his surrogates need to be called out when they play the race card. Whenever an issue of importance came up in 2007 or 2008 regarding Obama, still a relative unknown, his surrogates almost immediately claimed a racial animus. While Romney himself should steer clear of the calling out (much like Obama does- he leaves it to his surrogates to cry “racism”), Romney surrogates need to be on the lookout for similar Obama tactics in 2012 and counter punch quickly and hard. Secondly, Romney needs to address and stress the issues that women care more about- household finances, jobs, and educational choice for their children. Democrats are under the mistaken impression that women’s issues are defined by reproductive rights. Romney would be well-advised to steer clear of that pitfall and stick to the economic issue. He could even frame the entire issue in economic terms. The fact is that abortion, reproductive rights and the alleged “war on women” are areas where Democrats feel Romney is weak. Where Romney can score points is reframing the issue as the real war on women being Democratic caricatures of women which mirror those of feminists and as ignoring the true issue this election- the economy.