Political Animal


October 26, 2012 4:21 PM Base Vs. Undecideds, 2012 Edition

By Ed Kilgore

As habitual consumers of political talk know, one of the most ancient arguments of American politics involves the relative emphasis campaigns should pay to persuasion and mobilization—to “base voters” and “swing” or more technically, “persuadable undecided” voters. Late in most competitive campaigns, of course, the ratio of voters that can be harvested via superior “mobilization” as compared to those in which “persuasion” tends to rise as voters make up their minds or simply lose interest. It’s a challenge not only for campaigns, but for observers, who often struggle to get a handle on the proportions of voters in the two categories.

That’s why two pieces in TNR today are worth reading. The first, by Bill Galston, reminds us there are indeed still undecided voters out there, and they have a tendency (though not always and not always by big margins) to break against incumbents at the end of campaigns. The second, by Nate Cohn, gets into comparisons of current candidate margins with the remaining undecided vote, which helps enormously:

In this election, the number of undecided voters is so small that there are only few states where a clear break would be sufficient to flip the outcome. In Wisconsin and Nevada, Obama already exceeds 49 percent, suggesting that undecided voters could only influence the outcome if Obama supporters turn out at lower rates than the polls anticipate. One state where Romney still retains a narrow path to victory through undecided voters is Ohio, where Obama holds a very slight lead of just 2.1 points in the RealClearPolitics average, 47.9 to 45.8. But if Romney won 55 percent of undecided voters and one percentage point vote for a third party candidate, Obama would still win Ohio by a 1.6-point margin, 50.3 to 48.7. Romney would need nearly 70 percent of undecided voters to carry the state—an exceptional performance. Colorado and Virginia are the two states close enough for undecided voters to more realistically make a difference, but, even there, turnout is a more critical question.

But there’s another reason it makes sense for Obama to focus on turnout rather than persuasion in the final days, assuming he has to make that choice, notes Cohn:

According to national polls, Obama is performing four points better among registered voters than likely voters. That’s well above the more typical 1 or 2 point gap and the main culprit appears to be strong Republican enthusiasm combined with low enthusiasm among young, Latino, and Democratic-leaning independent voters. Since Obama’s coalition is unusually dependent on low-frequency voters, Obama has more to gain from a strong turnout operation than previous candidates. Although it’s unclear whether Obama’s vaunted ground operation can rejuvenate turnout among infrequent Obama ‘08 voters, the difference between a modest and high turnout among young and minority Obama supporters could easily decide the election. And it’s not just that turnout is important, it’s that Obama’s larger advantage among registered voters makes it an open question whether Obama could actually lose if minority and youth turnout rates approach ‘08 levels, even if undecided voters broke in Romney’s direction.

The very nature of Obama’s coalition makes it hard, and essential, to turn it out. But if he does, he’s in a clear position to win no matter how many voters Moderate Mitt bamboozles.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on October 26, 2012 4:52 PM:

    The way the riths has played the MSM for decades, denigrated government, and created cynicism in the electorate, the current efforts at voter suppresson are just another level of redundancy.

    Now add in Electronic Voter Machines that can be flipped, pardon me from having any level of optimism.

    I'll believe President Obama ahs won, well after November 7th, and the coming challenges by von Spakovky in FSM knows how many states, are overcome.

    And then, if he does, there will be blood.

    The Reich Wing in this country will lose their sh*t if President Obama is reelected.

  • Buggy Ding Dong on October 26, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Please stop helping him by calling him "Moderate Mitt". We need to call him Multiple Choice Mitt.

    Teddy would approve and it defines him better as full of shit Mitt and a flip-flopper

  • exlibra on October 26, 2012 8:34 PM:

    But there’s another reason it makes sense for Obama to focus on turnout rather than persuasion in the final days [...] -- Ed Kilgore

    We're ahead of you there :) Don't know about the people on the phones (who do their bugging 3-4 times a week), but us "boots on the ground and finger to the doorbell brigade" (who go out, in 3 shifts, every weekend) have already been concentrating on turnout-only *last* weekend. Before then, we had both persuasion and turnout voters on our lists, but last Saturday (I only go out on Saturdays; need some of the weekend for house chores) we've been told not to waste our time arguing; just "get them to the church in time".

  • Honeyboy Wilson on October 26, 2012 11:17 PM:

    Go read the comments about Galston on TNR's site and then ask yourself if he is worth your time paying any attention to.

  • Ellen on October 28, 2012 5:13 PM:

    I am an Independent voter. I came to this article to learn something from your thoughts. I do this regularly on several sites and read articles written by both "sides". I took your article seriously until the very last sentence. I find that those who resort to name calling to try and bring someone down are devoid of writing with a "clear head", and, therefore, are not worth my time...won't be back...imho..

  • Danceswithtrees on October 28, 2012 5:27 PM:

    The Des Moines Register's endorsement pretty much sums it up for me. After endorsing Obama they (like many of us) have become disillusioned by his lack of transparency and his certain lack of leadership. He campaigned like a moderate who will bring us all together and has governed in the opposite divisive way. The clear choice in 2012 is Mitt Romney. I thank the Des Moines Register for having the courage to write this endorsement...it's huge, as it is the first time they have endorsed a Republican in 40 years.