President Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands following their first debate… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty…)
What do undecided voters want from presidential candidates, anyway?
Not much. Just clearer answers, a sense of firm leadership — and a credible promise that the next four years will bring more bipartisan cooperation than the last four.
"I'll vote for the person that gives me the most clarity," Calvin Smith, 70, a retired high school teacher in Columbus, Ohio, said last week. "I've heard enough visions. I want concrete, step-by-step instructions."
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In a polarized election year, the dwindling ranks of undecided voters have become objects of wonderment and even ridicule. Polls report that only about 6% of the nation's likely voters are still on the fence; another 12% or so have tentatively settled on a candidate but say they still might change their minds.
Some, like Smith, have been paying close attention all year, have watched the debates and know the candidates' positions well. Smith says he's a moderate — "a fiscal conservative and a social liberal" — who's dissatisfied with both presidential candidates. He wishes President Obama hadn't presided over so much growth in the federal deficit, but he wishes Mitt Romney weren't so conservative on social issues such as abortion and contraception.
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"It's a quandary," he said cheerfully.
But he does plan to vote, and he thinks he knows how he'll make up his mind. "In the end, it's going to be who wins the next two debates," he said.
Smith was one of 12 Ohio voters who spent an evening last week talking about the election in a focus group sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. A focus group isn't a poll; it's a discussion led by a public opinion scholar — in this case, Peter D. Hart, a leading Democratic pollster. The goal is to go beyond the two-dimensional questions that polls ask and get a sense of how voters weigh all the factors — emotional as well as analytical — in their choice.
The session was held in Columbus because it's a swing city in an important swing state. The group included six men and six women, six who voted for Obama in 2008 and six who voted for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. They weren't all "pure undecideds" — five said they leaned tentatively toward Obama, four toward Romney. Only three were completely on the fence.
But they shared some basic views: The country is in trouble, the economy isn't recovering fast enough, and neither presidential candidate has shown that he has the ability to turn things around.
For most of these voters, Obama has been a disappointment, but Romney hasn't convinced them that he understands middle-class concerns.
"Obama, I think, hasn't done what he said he was going to do," said Jeff Malesky, 54, a computer systems manager. "And Romney, we don't know what he's going to do."
Romney had impressed many of them with his performance in the first presidential debate Oct. 3 (the discussion took place before Thursday's vice presidential debate).
"[Romney] came out like a man who wanted the job with passion," said Terry Grenier, 64, an advertising copywriter who had been leaning toward Obama. "It made me feel a whole lot differently about him…. I thought, 'Damn! I'm going to be listening with a different ear than I did before."
If the choice were based on economics alone, Romney might have taken the night. About half of the participants said they thought Romney was more capable of fixing the economy, and about half said the two candidates were equally able — but no one argued that Obama had the advantage on the issue.
Why didn't that decide their votes? "The presidency is more than just the economy," replied Jessica Hall, 35, a homemaker.
A jumble of other issues were on their minds as well. Obama's healthcare plan guarantees insurance to people with preexisting conditions; if Romney repealed Obamacare, would the guarantee go away? Obama's had four years of on-the-job training; maybe four years wasn't enough time to give any president a chance to succeed, especially in an economic crisis.
And then there was the matter of Romney's wealth and his seemingly distant personality, factors that came up again and again during the two-hour conversation. "I don't think he's relatable at all," Hall said. When Hart asked the participants to say what family member the candidates reminded them of, Obama drew a variety of choices: father, uncle, brother-in-law. Romney, they said, seemed more like a stepfather.
Which one seems like the stronger leader? The answer seemed to be: neither. Obama's backbone, Grenier said, seemed made of "willow." Romney's backbone? "Unknown," Smith replied.
Hart, who has presided over thousands of such sessions with voters since 1971, said the session helped clarify the presidential race — at least in Ohio, where polls suggest Obama is clinging to a narrow lead.
"The economy is the central issue, but it isn't transformative for Romney," Hart said. "They're skeptical that either candidate can fix it."
With only a little more than three weeks remaining in the campaign, the race remains too close to call. Many of those voters will be watching the two remaining debates between Obama and Romney. The conventional wisdom still holds that televised debates have only a marginal effect on a presidential election.
But this year, with the electorate so closely divided, even a marginal effect could be decisive.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus