Pre-Debate Pondering the Undecided’s

I’ll be curious to see how the debate goes tonight, especially since this will be in a town meeting format with the audience asking most of the questions, though moderator Candy Crowley will have the questions beforehand and select the ones to be used, and provide some follow-ups.

English: Pictography of Alfred E. Neuman used ...

Alfred E. Neuman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you understand these debates are not about substance but style and rhetoric.  And, given the town meeting venue, how and where each candidate moves takes on importance.  Romney won the first debate because his debate performance was much better.  A point made by a number of pundits is that the Obama team had spent months trying to make Romney seem “unacceptable”, and that changed for many that night.   Romney looked like he’d make a good president.  And Obama was caught flat footed when  Mitt tacked sharply to the center saying things he had never said before (well, not for a long time at least).

I have heard various suggestions from cable pundits of what pose each candidate should strike tonight if they want to win, including one focus group suggestion that the winning pose is that of  “a good husband.”  David Frum mirrors that in a recent post when he suggests Mitt Romney work on his appearing “empathetic.”  You know, the opposite of the “I don’t care about the 47%” attitude.

I keep thinking about the undecided’s, and wonder what varieties they come in.   I have no idea what might tip each balance, either in this debate or on election day.  Since my last post I have  heard a poll estimates undecided’s as 12% rather than 5%.   Could the undecided’s actually be growing in number?  The numbers might be increasing from people who are not really undecided.   Instead, they have just decided they are sick of it all.   I know one reader who finds both camps  so disgusting that, as far as I know, he may decide not to vote.  How many undecided’s will make that decision?

Adding to the difficulty in understanding the undecided’s is what Nate Silver (a pollster’s pollster) calls  “the confusing polling landscape” in an Oct 14 post:   Even some of the decided’s seem to be deciding differently since the first debate, as Silver’s projected Nov 6 estimate of Obama’s winning the presidency is down to 63.3%, a big drop from the 80+% of a few weeks ago.

This past weekend I watched Melissa Harris-Perry, a cable political chat show on MSNBC that devoted a  segment to the issue of the “undecided’s”.    I was struck by what seemed likely futile attempts of most of the participants, especially Melissa, to make substance points for selecting Obama, as if that would sway any undecided voters at this point.

In an email she has probably not gotten around to read, I pointed to a recent Pew poll in which 48% of voters don’t even seem to know that Obama is a Christian, including 17% who thinks he’s a Muslim.  If nearly 50% of voters don’t know that much yet, how much swing can reason bring?

Also, what may sound reasonable is often wrong.  Or the poll is.  Another recent Pew poll cited in a column by Matt Miller indicates that older voters favor Romney over Obama 58% to 37%.    Say what?  Liberal commentators and Dem operatives have cemented the impression we old folks are a slam dunk for them, that the threat of a change in Medicare to a voucher system would turn us into gray panthers.  But that poll suggests many of us  are jumping ship instead?  Maybe we are not the one-issue segment the Dems think.   Or maybe some of us would like to actually see how the Obama team will save Medicare as opposed to how Romney will disfigure it.   Or maybe, being old, some of us got confused (not my fault, nobody asked me).  Or maybe anything….who knows?

When I start feeling very confused by it all I think of Ohio.  Unless there are some major surprises in voting elsewhere, it seems that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.   The Republicans haven’t won a presidency without Ohio in their corner, and Obama has held a solid lead there for weeks in all the polls I’ve seen, though it seems more wobbly now.    Many Ohioans, employed in car-related businesses, benefited from the saving of GM and Chrysler and the state’s unemployment is around 7.2%, much lower than the national average.

No wonder both candidates (or their VP surrogates) seem to be visiting the state every other day, which after the election may prompt yet another round of debate about doing away with the Electoral College, so the rest of our votes would count as much as those in Ohio.

If Ohio winds up going for Romney, not only will I likely feel the need to avoid several people I’ve made wagers with, I will really be surprised.  And then, while I don’t want to do it, I’d encourage someone else to write a book maybe titled:  Who Were the Undecided’s and How Did They Decide the 2012 Presidential Election?

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“Utterly Inadequate”

Official photographic portrait of US President...

( Wikipedia)

That was how Tom Brokaw summed up President Obama’s performance at the debate, and that seemed to capture much of the public reaction, especially from the staunchest of Obama supporters.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

(Wikipedia)

Political wit Bill Maher, who has donated one million dollars to an Obama Super PAC,  sounded liked he might want his money back in several tweets, including  “i cant believe I’m saying this but Obama DOES look like he needs a teleprompter.”   In the end he proclaimed Romney the winner of the debate.

Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, who undoubtedly remains convinced he is a hard hitting interviewer, but to me has morphed over time into a cheer captain for the Obama team, was almost apoplectic over the Obama performance.   “Where was Obama?” he yelled.  “He looked like he was enduring the debate.”  The President often stared down and sometimes grimaced while Romney focused his eyes and his zingers on him.

Of course, pundits have mentioned that challengers of a President have usually won the first televised debate, and we know how that worked out for John Kerry, for example.  Recently the pollsters have generally been tossing dirt over Romney’s chances like his campaign is already dead, so how is the President supposed to get up for the challenge?  Maybe being the leader of the free world has taken a little out of Obama lately, and he just couldn’t get past the feeling of having to endure an obvious etch-a-sketch loser like Mitt Romney.   Any athlete knows you don’t want to play a weak team because it doesn’t pump up the competitive juices.

Tied to that is the coaching Obama got or didn’t get for the debate.   Apparently, they did not want him to come off as too aggressive at or dismissive of Romney  (no mention of the 47% or Bain).  That succeeded.  He came off as blah instead.   But certainly they did not coach him to often look down nor to grimace.   He seemed to come up with those techniques on his own.

O. K., so most agree Obama’s performance was “inadequate”, but let’s remember one thing.  We are talking about ONE NINETY MINUTE PERFORMANCE.   Given all there is by which to judge the two candidates, this really shouldn’t mean that much.  Or should it?  Apparently it did to several members of a focus group of 24  “undecideds” who discussed their reactions to the debate on Fox TV.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that after months and months of us being inundated with political blitz, they could find 24 undecideds.   I’ve been assuming what few there are must be in a coma or lost somewhere, like in the Amazon basin.  But pollsters say I’m wrong, estimating that 5% of likely voters are still undecided.  Anyway, pollster Frank Luntz gathered 24 of them, 13 of whom had voted for Obama in the last election.  By the end of the debate, though, a big majority of the group either seemed to favor Romney, or at least hadn’t decided.   Obama didn’t seem to pick up a vote.  One guy had become very decided, saying he would vote for Romney because he showed a better “grasp of the facts”.

What facts?  There are millions of related facts and Romney chose some and was crisp and sharp in selling them.   Given more time and attention (as numerous commentators have done in postmortems), those “facts” reveal more holes than Swiss cheese.  But for whatever reasons, Obama failed to bite into them, barely even a nibble.

O. K. then.   The Emmy for best Presidential performance in a TV debate goes to Mitt Romney.   Now that the West Wing is no longer on the air, the competition is slim.   What I wonder about is how many swing voters are as impressionable as that Luntz focus group?   Many did not seem to realize that acting more presidential than the President for 90 minutes, by appearing more energized and in better command of the facts, is not equivalent to being the President and doing presidential things, especially when many of the so-called facts are essentially fictions.

This focus group of “undecideds” did make me wonder whether many of those swing voters come election day will vote  as whimsically as me choosing sweet and sour pork on a Chinese menu over beef and broccoli.  I don’t know why.  Broccoli just seems less appealing at the moment.

One thing for sure about that debate is that Mitt Romney acted like the guy who wants the presidency more.   This is partially because Barack Obama already is the President.  He already has the bone that Romney wants.   The problem in debating might be that Obama has come to believe that he has already won.

Given the capriciousness of some American voters, though, the race may not be a done deal, especially if between now and Nov 6, Mitt adds to his collection of my imaginary Emmy’s.