Brass, a disappointed Barack Obama 2008 voter, is troubled by his feeling that both candidates—though particularly Mitt Romney—“are willing to compromise their morals to get ahead.” My point is not that Brass is automatically right or that his final decision will somehow decide the election, although Iowa remains close. Rather, it is that real voters often defy cartoonish stereotypes; Brass does not hold the right-wing sentiments somehow expected from a Marine who became a cop.
I am pretty certain that most of the undecided voters I interviewed (like Mike, an Iowa family-practice physician troubled by low Medicare reimbursement rates) could make a voting decision right now if they had to. But bulletin to the press and the pollsters: These voters don’t have to make up their minds under November 6. Nothing in the Constitution requires them to adhere to an artificial schedule dictated by journalistic impatience.
It’s not just the press pack. In early voting states like Iowa, both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been relentless in their efforts to harvest a vote-by-mail bounty before the first pitch of the World Series. After seeing this electoral arm-twisting in action, I would love to read some well-reported stories on whether early balloting short-changes voter reflection. I also wonder if it encourages unreflective partisanship in voting for down-ballot races like state legislative elections, since external clues such as newspaper endorsements and candidate debates often come late in the electoral cycle.
Most Americans, of course, are not being bludgeoned into voting early by door-to-door canvassers with the zeal of old-time encyclopedia peddlers. In fact, rarely have so many voters been consigned to the sidelines of a campaign based solely on the states where they reside. The narrow geographic focus of this presidential campaign is unprecedented, with only Wisconsin being added to the map of hotly contested political turf since the summer. (Of course, not being subjected to the barrage of presidential campaign ads that you face in markets like Cedar Rapids or Cincinnati has its aesthetic benefits.)
Reporting trips to bellwether states like Iowa and Ohio haven’t only given me a chance to talk to undecided voters—they’ve also convinced me that the only polls that matter are swing-state surveys. From the television ad barrage to the intense canvassing efforts, voters in battleground states are witnessing a different presidential campaign than the rest of America. In Iowa, campaign insiders working for both Obama and Romney told me that their internal voter-identification systems are infinitely more sophisticated than a lowly political reporter could possibly imagine. (That, by the way, fits the thesis of Victory Lab author Sasha Issenberg, which I discussed in a recent CJR column.)
Statistical gurus and armchair pundits may obsess over the cosmic meaning of the fluctuations in the Gallup tracking poll numbers. But I’m convinced that the polling divide that matters is one that tracks an underlying reality: this is an election about the Two Americas (Hat tip: John Edwards, c. 2004). The Two Americas are the scores of states that both campaigns are taking for granted, and those seven or eight others that will pick a president. That’s why I am swearing off all national polls until November 6.