In a recent Associated Press poll, one in four voters said that they were “uncommitted” to either President Obama or Mitt Romney at the mid-point of summer.
In the article, both campaigns recognized the dilemma that they face heading into the general campaign—which appears to have already started:
“Obama and Romney will spend huge amounts of time and money trying to win their votes, especially in the most competitive states that tend to swing between Republicans and Democrats each presidential election. Obama and Romney face the same hurdle, winning over wavering voters without alienating core supporters they need to canvass neighborhoods and staff telephone banks this fall to help make sure their backers actually vote.”
One question that is often raised is “when do voters make up their minds?” In 2008, I looked at the exit poll question that asked voters “when did you finally decide for whom to vote for in the presidential election?” for both the national and North Carolina polls.
By the last month of the general campaign, three-quarters of voters nationally had made up their mind for whom they were going to vote for, with about 11 percent of national voters finally deciding a week before the election.
In comparing North Carolina voters and when they finally settled on a candidate, we see similar patterns in their timing as well: 78 percent of Tar Heel voters said that they had made up their mind on their presidential candidate prior to October, with just 10 percent deciding within the week of the election.
But as we know from other aspects of exit poll results, the timing of “who to vote for” may be impacted by how voters identify themselves politically.
In breaking down those voters who identify as Democratic, Republican, or Independent, we see something that really isn’t surprising to most of us who study voter behavior: partisans have their minds made up much earlier than independents.
In 2008, nearly two-thirds of national Democrats and Republicans said they knew who they would vote for before September’s traditional kick-off to the general campaign.
Conversely, barely a majority of independents had their minds settled on their presidential candidate.
Going into the last month of campaigning, three-quarters of partisan voters had their minds on their candidate, but nearly a third of independents where still deciding during the last critical month of campaigning.
In North Carolina, 71 percent of Democrats had made up their minds on their presidential candidate prior to September, while only 60 percent of Republicans had settled their choice. This could have been tied to the general apathy that the GOP had to their party, especially with the low approval ratings of then President George W. Bush.
Among Tar Heel independents, nearly a quarter of them were still making their minds up coming into the final month of the campaign.
What is interesting in comparing the AP poll to the rest of the field is that both Obama and Romney seem to be hovering around the mid-40s, according to Real Clear Politics poll averages. Unless there is some great movement among independents or some unknown event that will shift the electorate in the next few months, the election appears to be one of a distinct holding pattern until November.
But as I tell my students, an hour in politics can be an eternity — imagine what the next four months will feel like.