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Romney’s Problem With Undecided Voters Could Cost Him the Election

With Obama standing in the upper-forties and leading by a few points, Romney’s chances hinge on the verdict of undecided voters. If they break his way, Romney could catch up to Obama in the polls—and there’s a reasonable line of thought contending that’s what we should expect. After all, Obama’s approval rating is beneath 50 percent, so most of these voters harbor misgivings about the president’s performance. And every Republican remembers the lesson of 1980, when undecided voters flocked to Reagan over the final few days, turning a dead-heat into a decisive 489 electoral-vote landslide.

But recent polling from Pew Research and NBC/WSJ suggests that Romney has a real problem with the undecided voters he’s counting on to put him over the top. Approximately half of undecided voters have an unfavorable impression of Romney, while his favorability ratings are mired in the teens. That’s an average net-favorable rating of -33, which is all the more remarkable considering that about one-third of voters didn’t offer an opinion of Romney at all. Put differently, Romney is disliked by an astonishing 75 percent of undecided voters who have formulated an opinion of the Republican nominee.

Obama’s numbers aren’t much better at a net-negative 15, but they are better, with slightly less than one-third of undecided voters holding a positive opinion. And far more importantly, Obama leads among voters who have already decided, so his burden among undecided voters is considerably less than Romney's. Take today’s RCP average: Obama’s up by 2.7 points, 47.3 to 44.6. Assuming that one percent of voters ultimately select third party candidates, Romney would need to win 69 percent of undecided voters to produce a tied popular vote, while Obama would need just 31 percent. 

And while the 1980 scenario can't be discounted, it's also not a scenario that anyone should count on. Things aren't going well right now, but today's economic and geopolitical climate isn't nearly as bad as 1980, as this Nate Silver piece helpfully demonstrates. Today's political and economic climate is more reminiscent of 1992 or 2004—elections where undecided voters did not overwhelmingly break toward either side. Between some portion of undecided voters staying home, an inevitable subset voting for Obama, and Romney’s high unfavorable ratings, a flood of undecided voters flocking to Romney seems unlikely—at least if the election were held today.