What do undecided voters want from presidential candidates, anyway?
Not much. Just clearer answers, a sense of firm leadership — and a credible promise that the next four years will bring more bipartisan cooperation than the last four.
In a polarized election year, the dwindling ranks of undecided voters have become objects of wonderment and even ridicule. Polls report that only about 6 percent of the nation’s likely voters are still on the fence; another 12 percent or so have tentatively settled on a candidate but say they still might change their minds.
One of those voters, who called himself a a moderate — “a fiscal conservative and a social liberal” — thinks he knows how he’ll make up his mind. “In the end, it’s going to be who wins the next two debates,” he said.
That voter, Calvin Smith, 70, a retired high school teacher, was one of 12 Ohio voters who spent an evening last week talking about the election in a focus group sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. A focus group isn’t a poll; it’s a discussion led by a public opinion scholar — in this case, Peter D. Hart, a leading Democratic pollster. The goal is to go beyond the two-dimensional questions that polls ask and get a sense of how voters weigh all the factors — emotional as well as analytical — in their choice.
The session was held in Columbus, Ohio, because it’s a swing city in an important swing state. The group included six men and six women, six who voted for Obama in 2008 and six who voted for his opponent, Sen. John McCain. They weren’t all “pure undecideds” — five said they leaned tentatively toward Obama, four toward Romney. Only three were completely on the fence.
But they shared some basic views: The country is in trouble, the economy isn’t recovering fast enough, and neither presidential candidate has shown that he has the ability to turn things around.
For most of these voters, Obama has been a disappointment, but Romney hasn’t convinced them that he understands middle-class concerns.
“Obama, I think, hasn’t done what he said he was going to do,” said Jeff Malesky, 54, a computer systems manager. “And Romney, we don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Romney had impressed many of them with his performance in the first presidential debate Oct. 3 (the discussion took place before Thursday’s vice presidential debate).
“(Romney) came out like a man who wanted the job with passion,” said Terry Grenier, 64, an advertising copywriter who had been leaning toward Obama. “It made me feel a whole lot differently about him . . . I thought, ‘Damn! I’m going to be listening with a different ear than I did before.’ ”
If the choice were based on economics alone, Romney might have taken the night. About half of the participants said they thought Romney was more capable of fixing the economy, and about half said the two candidates were equally able — but no one argued that Obama had the advantage on the issue.
Why didn’t that decide their votes? “The presidency is more than just the economy,” replied Jessica Hall, 35, a homemaker.