OPINION26 October 2012

Less skin in the game


Enthusiasm for this year’s presidential election is lower than it was in 2008, says Emily Hunt. With the debates now done, attention turns to energising a less engaged electorate.

We assume that they are having debate-viewing parties, or at least tweeting the big moments and major gaffes as they happen. We know that they are donating time or money to the candidates and causes they care about. They must be watching the coverage, reading up online, having conversations with everyone they know, or at least wagering on the outcome online.


While a vast majority of Americans are incredibly enthusiastic about the November election, it’s not everyone. And the percentage of voters who say that they are very interested in November’s elections is the lowest it’s been in eight years.

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It is important to remember that this election year is a little different from the last two, and fundamentally different from the 2008 election. While the US is still suffering economically, there is a very different view of where the country is headed.
In 2008, 78% of registered voters said that the US was on the wrong track. Today, this has dropped by 25 points to only 53%. It is still a majority of voters who say that the country is going the wrong way – but two-in-five Americans now say that the country is headed in the right direction, compared to only 1 in 10 in 2008.

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It shouldn’t be too surprising to know, then, that fewer people are interested in the elections this cycle. They have less at stake – there is less of a benefit in participating, engaging and voting.

This is important to remember. As most of the commentators are reminding us, on paper the national popularity contest is quite close. Once you take into account the Electoral College and key swings, it is still generally expected to be Barack Obama’s presidency to lose.

The swing states are, as always, key. But most important in the swing states is the turnout. Who will get the most voters to turn up for them? With slightly waning enthusiasm – both among Obama’s less engaged and hopeful base, and Romney’s supporters unsure about which of his positions to believe – the campaigns are going to need to use polling data to help them craft their final plans and the best allocation of their resources.

Let’s take Ohio as an example. When Romney pulled key staff members out of Pennsylvania earlier this month, quite a few were sent to Ohio. Ohio is generally regarded as vital to the Electoral College math for either candidate to win. The polling numbers made it clear that Pennsylvania was no longer the swing state it once was – and the Romney campaign made the wise choice of re-allocating its resources and talent to States that could better provide a win.

To even have a chance, the Romney campaign would need to turnout a far higher proportion of his likely voters than would be naturally inclined to go to the polls this year. And, short of a game-changing strategy, this isn’t incredibly likely.

The numbers are in fact close in Ohio, and have been all month. Ohio started early voting on 2 October – the day before the president’s big loss in the first debate. While the horse race has been fluctuating all month, Obama has generally been in the lead – or tied – throughout October:

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Unless the Romney campaign can come up with an ingenious way to get less enthusiastic voters to the polls and break the status quo, this still isn’t really a race.

Emily Hunt is director of insights at Edelman Berland, Edelman’s insights and analytics subsidiary. She is a dual US/UK citizen, and has a strong interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Emily has an MA in Political Campaign Management from New York University and started her career as a political operative in the US before moving into polling. You can follow her on Twitter at @emilyinpublic or find out more about her here.