The electorate is about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and only about two percent of voters will likely determine the outcome, political analysts pointed out at an American Enterprise Institute panel discussion Thursday. With an election that close, even small factors can make a difference. The discussants pointed out four of these small factors that could, in a very close election, decide who will be the next president of the United States.
Using rough estimates, political scientist Norman Ornstein said the electorate is about one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third who say they are independent. Of the independents, about one-third are reliable Democratic voters and about one-third are reliable Republican voters. This leaves about 10 percent of the electorate who are true independents. But among those, roughly half "are clueless and are basically independent because they could care less."
This leaves about four to eight percent of voters who are true "swing voters," Ornstein pointed out, but even among them, most do not live in swing states.
"So, we're really looking at about two percent of the electorate in those swing states. And, that two percent ... are going to be responsible for a billion dollars or more in advertising," Ornstein said.
Ornstein was joined on the panel, called "AEI Election Watch 2012: How close is this race, really?" by Michael Barone, a political analyst, journalist and AEI resident fellow, Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at AEI, and Henry Olsen, director of AEI's National Research Initiative.
Olsen believes that the sentiments that helped Republicans win big in the 2010 election have mostly dissipated and the electorate is back to a 50-50 split that characterized the electorate from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
"So we're back to where we were in 1996, which is a nation divided against itself that can't quite make up its mind which of the two directions it wants to go in," Olsen said.
Given that the electorate is so closely divided and so few have yet to make up their mind, the panelists mentioned four factors that could, on the margins, have an impact.
Ryan's Congressional Campaign Spending in Wisconsin
Since Mitt Romney chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Wisconsin's 10 electoral college votes are now up for grabs. Olsen pointed out that since Ryan is also running for reelection in his House seat, his congressional campaign is running ads in his district, which happens to cover some key areas that the presidential candidates need to perform well in to win that state. Though the ads may not, under campaign finance laws, specifically call for voting for Romney, they can address issues that favor the Romney campaign. Olsen believes that spending for the Ryan congressional campaign will equal or surpass Obama campaign spending in Wisconsin.
Third Party Candidates Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson
Will Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson hurt Obama's chances to win in Colorado or New Mexico? Or will Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode spoil Romney's chances of winning Virginia? Two of the panelists split on these questions. Barone believes these candidates will not have much impact while Ornstein thinks they could make a difference.
Goode is a native Virginian and served in the U.S. House as a Republican, so most of his votes would likely go to Romney if he were not in the race. Johnson is also a former Republican but, Barone pointed out, he will likely take more votes from Obama than Romney because he advocates the legalization of marijuana. He served two terms as governor of New Mexico and there will be a pro-marijuana ballot initiative in Colorado that may increase turnout among Johnson supporters.
"If this election ends up being a nail-biter, very close, [third party candidates] could make a significant difference this time," Ornstein said.
Ornstein also joked that the pro-marijuana vote may not be reliable. A lot of pro-Johnson voters will wake up on Nov. 7 and tell themselves, "Oh man! Was that yesterday?" Ornstein mocked in his best stoner voice.
"Let Detroit Go Bankrupt"
"Romney was done no favors by a headline writer when he wrote his op-ed," Ornstein said.
The now infamous headline to Romney's 2008 New York Times editorial, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," may have doomed Romney's chances to win Michigan. There are several bits of irony in this.
Like most editorials, Romney did not write the headline. Nor did he call for car companies to go bankrupt. Rather, he made suggestions for how American car companies could become more competitive (including, interestingly enough, cutting executive pay and perks). At the end, he said that a managed bankruptcy may be the only path forward, which, as he predicted, actually ended up happening.
Romney's father, George Romney, worked for an auto company and served as governor of Michigan. Under normal circumstances, this would help him be competitive in that state. The Obama campaign's recurring message that Romney called for the car companies to go bankrupt and Obama saved the car companies seems to be having an impact though. The Romney campaign has pulled its advertising from the state and is no longer competing there.
The impact of the editorial headline will not only be felt in Michigan, Ornstein pointed out. The automotive industry is also important in Ohio -- a key swing state.
Presidential elections with an incumbent president are often a referendum on the incumbent -- the electorate decides to either change course or stay the course. At this point, though, Ornstein believes the race is more like a choice between Obama and Romney than a referendum on Obama's presidency. The reason is that Romney is not viewed as an acceptable alternative to Obama by a sufficient number of voters.
While political scientists often say that debates make little difference in the outcome of an election, this could be one exception because it provides Romney with an opportunity to prove, or disprove, to voters that he is that acceptable alternative.
The first debate "may matter," Ornstein said, because "people are going to pay some significant attention."