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Voter Overload and the Presidential Endgame

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

If the 2008 national presidential exit poll is correct (and I take it with a grain of salt), 4 percent of voters made their decision on Election Day and 10 percent decided whom to vote for at some point during the final week. (Interestingly, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did much better among late deciders than he did among the 90 percent of voters who decided before the last week of the campaign.)

Given that the presidential election is likely to be close, possibly extremely close, late deciders — that is, voters who don’t have strong partisan attachments and tend to fall into the independent category — are likely to choose the winner.

How do these people make their decisions in the face of all the countervailing arguments and information?

I talked with multiple pollsters from both parties about this and they agreed that the true undecided voters will make their decisions in the final weeks, probably influenced heavily by the presidential debates, the last ads they see or the October job numbers that will be released on Friday, Nov. 2.

The endgame is crucial for undecided voters. As one consultant put it: “Whichever campaign prosecutes a cogent case against the other at the very end will win. It’s a question of who does the better job raising doubts about the other guy at the end.”

Another strategist noted that personal qualities of the candidates will matter to late undecided voters looking for a way to choose. But, he added, how they will cast their votes depends on what they will be thinking about as they vote — jobs, the deficit, Romney’s wealth, health care or which candidate is more likeable.

I agree with those observations, but I’d put the answer a bit differently.

First, these voters will consider whether the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track. If they are content, optimistic, upbeat or hopeful, they’ll almost certainly decide that the president deserves a second term, case closed.

But since they are undecided right up until the end, they probably won’t feel upbeat and optimistic. They are more likely to be worried about the future. And if that is the case, it’s bad news for the president. Voters who are disappointed in the lack of a jobs recovery and the overall shape of the economy will be inclined to vote for change, and Obama represents continuity, the status quo.

If voters are resistant to a second Obama term, it  means they will be open to voting against the president. But it doesn’t guarantee they will actually do so.

Instead, at that point, they will consider their choices. So far, the president’s campaign has made Romney the issue (or, rather, an issue), and if those late deciders conclude that, for whatever reason, Romney is unacceptable, then the president can get those final key voters, even though they are unhappy with his performance.

Polling shows voters feel more favorably toward Obama than Romney, so if personal qualities turn out to be crucial for voters who are confused by the statistics and arguments, the president is likely to benefit. And that’s why the Romney campaign can’t allow the endgame to boil down to a popularity contest.

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