Monty Python, Political Pundit

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

– Monty Python

By Ken Feltman

May was one of President Obama’s worse months ever and June was hardly better for his reelection prospects. Despite that, polls suggested he was widening his lead in critical swing states. Then the Supreme Court ruled on Obamacare and the president got another boost. Some pundits proclaimed that Obama is headed for reelection. But is he?

The polls are measuring only part of the electorate. Most “undecideds” who will actually come out to vote in November have already decided on the basisfor their November decision. Many may not want to commit to either candidate yet, but in the backs of their minds, they know which issues are of most importance to them. Those issues will lead them to the candidate they eventually support. They oppose Obamacare by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin, with nine percent undecided or not answering.

Other voters, who usually vote for the candidate of their party, are in a form of denial. They are not comfortable with the party or candidate that they would usually support and may be in the process of migrating to the other party or candidate. They seldom express their feelings to pollsters and are best detected in focus groups. This year, a lot of them seem to be troubled about voting for President Obama again, with a smaller number of normally Republican voters troubled by the thought of voting for Mitt Romney. They oppose Obamacare, 46 percent to 40 percent, with 14 percent undecided or not answering.

Spin, spin: Is it 2008 or 1980 or maybe 1968?

Against this background, pollsters and pundits are competing to get their spin, their numbers and their 2012 predictions publicized. Many are trying to equate the 2012 election to a previous presidential election, often 2008. These folks concentrate on polls in “swing” states that may shift from blue to red or red to blue this time. Some think 2012 is like 1980, when a Democrat viewed as ineffective, Jimmy Carter, was swept out by a Republican viewed as nothing more than a photogenic actor or a dangerous right-winger.

Others believe that this year will be like 1968, when Hubert Humphrey got the nomination of a battered Democratic Party. Humphrey ran an innovative campaign but could not quite catch an unpopular Republican, Richard Nixon. The voters were tired of war and huge new social spending programs.

Recently, I listened as Tea Party enthusiasts compared this year to 1964. That was the year when many conservatives hoped a wave of normally uninvolved Americans would turn out to upset the experts and Lyndon Johnson by voting Barry Goldwater into the White House.

Waves that never reach shore

The wave did not arrive. Goldwater was crushed. His warnings against big government and big spending were too early. But the conservative movement that still influences American politics was born. Five years later, then President Nixon used the term “silent majority” to describe those Americans who did not demonstrate or publicly proclaim their political opinions. He implied that they would turn out to vote in massive numbers. They did not. Even the more focused anti-war voters splintered and fizzled.

Political waves usually expend their energy roiling and rolling off shore, often months before election day. People do not decide that they are part of a movement without knowing where the movement is headed. People are attracted to issues and events as well as candidates and they had plenty in 2008, 1980 and 1968, but fewer in 1964. Will anti-Obamacare voters turn out this year? That seems to depend on whether they are disenchanted 2008 Obama voters.

Is this a year like some other year or is 2012 unique? The answer is that this year is enough like several other years to make the comparisons intriguing and attractive to many pundits, but different enough to make them wrong. This election year is unique – just like every other election year. Do not buy into the idea that a comparison to 1980 or another year is the key to understanding 2012.

Pollsters and pundits analyze and project. Each believes that his or her methods yield the most accurate results. Pick your pundit and then discount everything and everybody, including the pundit you just picked.

Monty Python goes to the polls

Remember Monty Python? Here is the scene: Two English gentlemen are walking through the English countryside when they come to a gate. They pass through and, suddenly, without warning, they are in a dungeon in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. As he is being tortured, one gentleman says to the other: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

Nobody expected the lift that Sarah Palin gave an otherwise dispirited Republican convention in 2008. Nobody expected the Katie Couric interview to douse the Palin enthusiasm so quickly. So get out the grains of salt as you contemplate what pundits think. This year, the more pundits look at polls and focus groups, the more they conclude that something is not quite right and that, perhaps, something unexpected could happen.

Here are some things that are affecting the November results:

  • Younger voters have moved on from 2008. The enthusiasm is gone, the intensity dulled. (“What did it get us except maybe the tee-shirt.”) 
  • Many young voters want an issues-based campaign. The young were among the first to suggest that Obama is trying to re-run the 2008 election rather than discuss the issues of 2012. That annoys and even alienates these voters. (“It’s all political calculation, all the time.”) 
  • Rather than abandoning Obama completely, many independent or moderate voters are simply staying on the sidelines for now. They are likely to vote but they are unenthusiastic about Obama and they have not decided to support Romney. This is a two-edged sword: If Obama does not attempt to reengage these voters, they may complete their alienation from Obama by voting for Romney. Once voters decide to abandon an officeholder, even a president, they are hard to lure back. Usually, the best that can be expected is that those voters will stay on the sidelines. Obama may need to devote resources to those voters simply to keep them disengaged so they do not end up voting for Romney. (“I’m probably not going to vote for Obama again but I’m not sure I’m able to accept Romney. He needs to show me something.”) 
  • Black voters do not feel that they need to support Obama for racial reasons. Most reject that rationale. Those African-Americans who support Obama name reasons that are almost identical to reasons given by white voters. (“This election is about protecting my family and our standard of living.”) 
  • Some black voters express sadness that the first black president has been unsuccessful, but more white voters, as a percentage, express that thought. (“I’m disappointed, sure, but I don’t dwell on it or take it personally. I don’t think white people do, either.”) 
  • Moderate white voters are beginning to express what they were reluctant to say even a few months ago: They are disenchanted with Obama and less likely to support him in the coming election. (“As I heard more and more people say they were exasperated with Obama, I realized that it was okay to say it as well as think it.”) 
  • Voters who are reluctant to vote for Obama again have not been convinced that Romney is a better choice. (“I may vote for Obama as the least bad choice.”) 
  • Independent voters are uncertain that Romney will do better than Obama. They cite his seeming reticence to take firm positions on issues. They worry that he does not understand the issues. Most recently, many of them expressed amazement that Romney was not prepared to respond to Obama’s immigration policy change. (“I’ve seen statues that are more spontaneous than Romney.”)

What do all these things mean? They may mean that if the Republicans had John McCain as their candidate this year – without the baggage of his 2008 loss and his subsequent crankiness – they would be cruising to victory. Reporters might call McCain’s tendency to say outrageous things and shoot from the hip “refreshing” instead of “self-destructive.”

Waiting for reasons

This year is not like some other year. Some years are bad years for Republicans and some are bad for Democrats. This year is tough for independents. You know you are a genuine swing voter if you are having a tough time choosing your candidate this year.

A surprising number of independent voters want to turn out Obama but are holding back. More than most people, moderates need reasons to vote for Romney, not just againstObama. If this were any comparable election year, Obama would be headed for defeat. These voters want to vote for Romney or someone new, but they need reasons. What should be easy for Romney is very difficult. Why? Romney stirs no passion. For undecided voters, Romney does not give off bad vibes. He gives off no vibes.

More people than usual are frustrated with both choices but not quite ready to vote for someone like Ron Paul or Donald Trump. These voters see them as oddballs. So Romney is going to face off with Obama and many voters are coming to the conclusion that neither is up to the job. Unlike committed Democrats or Republicans, independent voters do not like to grit their teeth and vote for a candidate that they cannot warm up to. They do not have the party nominee as a fallback when they go to vote. So for the first time in many elections, the conventional pundits and pollsters are having difficulty projecting. They do not know how the voters in the middle will vote. How they voted last time or some other time is not a good indicator.

Romney versus Romney

The answer should be easy: This is a referendum on the incumbent, right? Obama cannot change his record, no matter how hard he tries to blame someone else or put his record in more favorable terms. So Romney just needs to show up, right? Not quite: The voters who will decide the election do not see Romney as a warm enough body. Not only that, but Romney seems powerless to change himself. Truly undecided voters say that things seem to go over his head, that he is slow to catch on. Some say that he has that deer-in-the-headlights look.

Do you see Romney that way? If you do not, you are not alone. Few pundits – indeed, few other voters – see Romney as so politically vacuous. But the voters who probably will decide this election do. The good news for Romney is that this election is his to win. The bad news is that it is also his to lose. So what happens now? Romney better get himself in gear or voters will re-elect a president they do not want to vote for. In difficult economic and foreign policy times, Americans who cannot decide have a tendency to vote for the devil they know rather than the devil that they do not know.

You may know if Romney has a chance to satisfy these independents by whether he has a good first debate, no matter how well Obama performs. Romney will not be debating Obama. He will be debating against the expectations set for his performance by undecided independent voters. Strangely, an election that was supposed to be all about Obama and his record may turn out to be all about whether Romney can convince the middle that he gets it.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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