Is it 2004 or 1980? That’s the question rankling the pundits, but what they’re really trying to unlock is the mystery of the sliver of undecided voters. In 1980, undecided voters uniformly broke toward Reagan, turning a dead heat into a landslide. But while Democrats were counting on a similar phenomenon in 2004, undecided voters split evenly, giving Bush a modest victory. In 2012, Obama has a clear and consistent lead in the popular vote, so Romney’s chances hinge on undecided voters breaking overwhelmingly toward the challenger: It’s 1980 or bust. But rather than focus on imperfect historical comparisons, a better approach is to focus on 2012. While the 1980 scenario is possible, it shouldn’t be counted on—and that makes Obama a favorite, even if he’s vulnerable.
For starters, let’s not ignore all the ways this year is different from 1980. Reagan benefited from a perfect storm of economic distress and geopolitical embarrassment, and as a result, Carter’s approval ratings were in the low-30s, not the upper-40s. In 2012, most economic indicators point toward a tight race, not a 489 electoral-vote landslide. Historically, changes in economic performance are more important to a president’s reelection chances than the absolute state of GDP or unemployment, and the economy has been improving, albeit slowly.
Given that history, it would be wrong to assume that Romney will surely sweep undecided voters. On the other hand, the economy is surely poor enough that Romney could sweep undecided voters. After all, Obama hasn’t budged from 47 or 48 percent since Romney won the nomination, so it’s clear that a majority of voters have real reservations about giving him a second term. But this isn’t a question of whether Romney could win, it’s a matter of whether he’s likely to win. And it’s tough to argue that he’s likely to win.
No, Obama isn’t above 50 percent. But Obama’s 47 percent is hardly prohibitive, at least at this stage. In recent presidential elections, candidates almost always finish above their standing in polls conducted prior to the conventions. That’s also true if you look further back. As a result, Obama’s a clear favorite in the states where he exceeds 49 percent of the vote, and it means he’s already in striking distance of the presidency. Even a few undecided voters would give him a shot at the electoral college, and even a third of them would give him a win.
Of course, Obama’s approval ratings are beneath 50 percent, which may mean that a majority of Americans are ready to send him packing. But his disapproval rating, which gets less attention, isn’t above 50 percent, either. And a majority of voters usually say they have a favorable opinion of Obama, unlike Romney. There’s no reason to put more stock in approval ratings than net-approval or favorability ratings; there’s a solid empirical relationship between all three data points and election outcomes. And once you take all these metrics into account, Obama’s position begins to look better. He possesses plausible routes to 50 percent (which might help explain Romney’s relentlessly negative strategy).
And although undecided voters are surely open to voting for Romney, these are precisely the cross-pressured white working-class voters targeted by the Obama campaign’s relentless effort to define Romney as a corporate raider, outsourcer, and tax evader. Recent polling suggests these attacks might be resonating, as Romney’s favorability ratings are at astonishingly low levels among undecided voters. Just as importantly, a majority of undecided voters already dislike Romney, and it’s hard to imagine too many of these voters casting ballots on his behalf.
Obama isn’t assured of doing well among undecided voters either. They don’t like him and they have plenty of reservations about his performance. The problem for Romney is that he has a much, much higher burden among undecided voters, so to contend that he’s favored, one needs to demonstrate that he’s likely to sweep undecided voters. Taking today’s RCP average, which is admittedly a pretty good one for Obama, Romney would need to win nearly three times as many undecided voters as Obama to reach 49.5 percent, or about 73 percent of all undecided voters. And that wouldn't even assure him of victory, just a tied popular vote.
While the economy and Obama’s mediocre ratings combine to open a path for Romney to win the election, the balance of evidence suggests that his path isn’t as easy as Obama’s approval rating makes it sound. It’s hard to say Romney’s the favorite when Obama remains personally popular, Romney’s increasingly tarred by relentless attacks, the economic climate is not necessarily so bad as to prohibit an Obama victory, and Obama is already in the upper-40s.