It's Obama's turn to hope

/ Source: National Journal

After something like 200 debates, forums and Web chats, billions of dollars' worth of ads and wall-to-wall cable TV coverage, it's hard to believe that anyone can still be undecided between and . Seriously, who are these people?

A look at our Diageo/Hotline polling, as well as time spent with 12 white voters from Lake County, Ohio, in a focus group conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, can give us some insight.

First, the data. There's nothing about the 401 undecided voters surveyed Oct. 7-25 that suggests they're going to break overwhelmingly for one candidate over the other. The two candidates had the same favorable rating (51 percent), and the same percentage of voters said they liked only one candidate or the other (13 percent). The respondents were also split evenly on the question of which party they'd like to see control Congress.

In other words, the idea that these undecideds are holding off on Obama simply because of race isn't backed up by the numbers. If there were lots of traditional Democrats sitting on their votes, we'd see a bigger percentage picking Democrats in the generic ballot question or identifying themselves as Democrats. Among this group, 26 percent self-identified as Republicans and 24 percent self-ID'd as Democrats; 39 percent said they were independent.

These voters see Obama as better on the economy, and they say he shares their priorities more than McCain does. Yet by a huge margin -- 39 percent to 10 percent -- they see McCain as more prepared to lead the country.

Interestingly, Obama has gained serious ground on the "preparedness" question over the last month. The latest Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF] had McCain and Obama tied at 45 percent; a month ago, McCain's lead was 11 percentage points. Additionally, even those who say McCain is better prepared aren't necessarily voting for him. Among those who pick him as "more prepared," 88 percent say they are voting for him, compared to 96 percent for Obama.

The "preparedness" gap played out among the Ohio focus group as well. Almost everyone acknowledged that they were frustrated or depressed by the current situation in the country. Eight of these voters, two-thirds, had voted for President Bush in '04, yet they were universally negative in their assessments of him. Even as nine of the 12 participants said they'd been personally affected by the current economic situation, they didn't seem all that moved by McCain's economic message -- at least, not the one couched in the story of "Joe the Plumber." Even the group's professional plumber -- Steve -- said he was sick of hearing about Joe Wurzelbacher.

This should set up well for Obama, right? A frustrated group of voters looking for, as one participant put it, "something to latch on to to give you some hope" seems tailor-made for the guy who's been preaching hope and change for the last two years.

Yet, when asked by the moderator to describe their emotions if they were to learn Obama had been elected, most were guarded. Terms like "worried" and "uncertain" were used most often. Even those who included Obama's ubiquitous "hope" mantra in their answers couched it as "hopefully he will..."

Why does this matter? Obama can win the election without winning over these Lake County voters. In fact, he can get to 270 electoral votes a lot of different ways, even if he loses Ohio.

The bigger question is, can he get these voters to buy in if he's elected president? Bringing people together under the banner of "change" is easy compared to keeping them together once that change is implemented. And if there's one thing this group of voters did agree on, it's that they really don't like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. At all. This means that a President Obama would have to show some real independence from the Democratic leadership.

Obama's "closing argument" stresses hope, unity and a new kind of politics. Even for those voters who don't buy into this as a voting issue, there's little doubt that they are going to hold him to these promises if he's elected.