Voter Overload and the Presidential Endgame

by Stuart Rothenberg July 27, 2012 · 10:31 AM EDT

It’s not news that voters in presidential swing state media markets are being bombarded with political ads on television.

According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, $13.6 million in presidential ads has aired so far in the Cleveland media market, $4.6 million in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and $15.2 million in Tampa, Fla.

And these numbers don’t include the blizzard of words both on TV and in print that aren’t paid ads but come from the campaigns and surrogates.

Of course, all of the advertising numbers (and arguing) will only grow between now and November. It’s not as if the campaigns are going to stop spending in crucial markets or the cable networks and Sunday shows are going to stop talking about the election.

So, while most observers focus on the content of particular ads or the larger campaign messages, it’s worth considering the effect of the sheer number of commercials and point-of-view messages that voters will see in the handful of swing states that will select the nation’s next president.

This is not a column that argues that early TV ads don’t matter. While they don’t seem to be moving opinion now, and I’m certainly skeptical of their value — many voters are probably ignoring the ads and dismissing them as half-truths, distortions and embellishments — it’s impossible to know whether the early ads will have created a context for spots that resonate with key voters when the fall rolls around.

That said, it’s indisputable that voters in swing states are drowning in a sea of arguments and statistics — whether about health care reform, tax policy, job creation or presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts or role at Bain Capital — most of them at odds with each other.

All of the advertising and coverage doesn’t produce a more informed, educated or thoughtful electorate.

Instead, most voters, numb from the propaganda, simply default to their “natural” partisan orientations. Republican voters choose to believe Romney, while Democrats fall in line behind President Barack Obama. As one consultant likes to say, voters are putting their team jerseys on early this cycle.

This is how partisans behave, but it is also how closet partisans, voters who say they are “independent” but actually have an attitudinal and behavioral partisan bent to one party or the other, act.

What is left is a small section of the electorate that is truly undecided. They are confused by the conflicting arguments and statistics. They don’t know who or what to believe.

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.

But if, after getting more bad economic news between now and Election Day, swing voters decide that the president can’t bring jobs but Romney can, they will vote for change.

The heavy early advertising and continued bombardment of voters until November means many will merely default to their partisan preferences, while true swing voters will delay their decisions, influenced by events and news in the final weeks.

If you think that means most presidential advertising will get little bang for the buck, you are right. And if you think the mood of the public when November rolls around will be crucial, you probably are right again.