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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Reflections on the State of the Race

Walter Shapiro's article on the state of the race in Ohio is interesting and very much worth a read. I want to talk specifically about Ohio later in the week. For now, I'd note that he is right say when he states the following:

Those who live with cable news droning in the background or check out the rolling national poll averages at Real Clear Politics three times a day can easily lose sight of the reality that many voters take a casual interest in the campaign this far from the election.

I agree wholeheartedly. Political junkies must remember that this election will not be decided by fellow junkies, but rather by people whose attention to and interest in politics is quite different.

It's unsurprising to me that the race is so tight, or that such a large portion of the electorate is still undecided. This is an open election, in that the incumbent president is not running. That can make a big difference. When the incumbent is running, people have four years worth of impressions about him to help them make up their minds. They don't have that this year.

This is compounded by the fact that the incumbent party is not running a member of the incumbent administration. Obama argues that there is no real difference between McCain and Bush - and he might convince the country of this. However, McCain makes the opposite argument, asserting that he's the change candidate. This probably enhances the uncertainty in some quarters of the electorate. Does McCain represent incumbency, or doesn't he? For many, the answer is probably not obvious.

It's also compounded by how different a candidate Barack Obama is. His resume does not have much in common with previous nominees. That means that, apart from determining which candidate is offering the desired amont of change, voters also must disentangle which candidate will do a better job actually changing things.

So, there is a lot of uncertainty. When we examine the polls from a higher altitude, we can see it pretty clearly. In the summer, Obama was under 50% with a small lead over McCain. Today, McCain is under 50% with an even smaller lead over Obama. The candidates have been close to each other in terms of support, and neither has crossed that magic halfway point for any extended period of time.

It is reasonable to expect this tightness to persist for several more weeks, with neither candidate moving substantially beyond 50%. The debates might move the electorate - especially if one side does substantially better than the other. However, we might not see a decisive break until right before Election Day.

As I indicated, the key word is uncertainty. For most voters, the choice is obvious. If you're a Republican, you vote Republican. If you're a Democrat, you vote Democrat. Easy enough. This is how about 85% or so of the public generally behaves. However, that leaves about 15% with either no partisan attachments or only weak attachments. They do not make as much use of "partisan cues" to determine their votes. With no decisive link between either candidate and the incumbent administration, they lack another obvious cue in a year like this. The fact that both sides are contesting the idea of "change" makes it even more difficult. Toss in the fact that the Democratic candidate does not have the kind of experience they are used to seeing - and we are looking at a very uncertain group of folks.

My guess is that they will remain this way for a good bit longer.

-Jay Cost