Why can't undecided voters just make up their minds already?
Mitt Romney may have hacked my email. A week ago, I asked undecided voters to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to explain themselves and their situation. I got about 200 thoughtful responses. (I welcome more, though supplies are going fast.) The message to Romney was clear: run as a malleable moderate from Massachusetts who isn't passionate about implementing a conservative social agenda, will promote a foreign policy that is not too different from President Obama's, and keep your distance from the Republican Congress. As the campaign comes to an end, Romney has fully embraced those first two pieces of advice, and by never really campaigning with GOP congressional leaders and recasting Paul Ryan, is doing a version of the third.
For these undecided voters, this election is a referendum on Romney. They've mostly already made up their mind about the incumbent. They don't dislike President Obama, but they think he is either incapable of improving the economy or locked into a do-nothing phase with Congress. "I voted for Obama in 2008, much to the surprise of my family and some of my friends, but certainly not all. I was enthusiastic about his election, but 4 years later feel he has not lived up to the 'hope and change' he professed, and [he] has not been successful in working with Republicans to get things done," writes Linda from Ohio. "I don't hold him responsible for the current state of the economy. I know it's not in his control, but I am concerned with his plans, or lack thereof, for growth going forward. He seems stuck." (This message almost sounds like a planted Romney email it so closely mirrors his campaign's spin, but as you'll see at the bottom of this story, Linda has some pretty harsh things to say about Romney, too.)
These voters think Romney can handle the economy, but they worry he will embrace an extreme agenda on social issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage. It's on those issues that they favor President Obama. The conundrum of one woman was typical: "I believe Obama, if elected, would be disastrous for the country, not only because of the debt he would cause the country to incur, but because of the precedents he would continue to set that make his initiatives very difficult to roll back in a future election. I believe Romney would be equally disastrous for different reasons. Republican positions are almost uniformly anti-woman, and as president, Romney would be in a position to name Supreme Court justices whose rulings will determine highly significant and personal issues not just for me but for my daughter. So, do I sell out my daughter's legal rights for her economic future?"
If they're not worried about Romney, they're worried about his party. "Although the economy is certainly my No. 1 issue (I'm also unemployed)," writes Christine from California, "it isn't the only issue. If it were, I think I would vote for Romney. But when it comes to social issues, I find the Republican Party downright scary, and I am also opposed to their stance on immigration, which is also an important issue for me. On the other hand, while I am not convinced Obama even understands the economy, never mind will actually move things in the right direction, I do think he has a bit more empathy in general."
Romney's focus groups and polling have long told him a version of this. That's why Romney has fully implemented this strategy of recasting or--in some cases like abortion--rewriting his positions on a host of issues. The Boston Globe helpfully put together a list. At this point, liberals scream that the reshaping of Romney should disqualify him. He either can't be trusted--Obama's point on the stump--or he's just going to govern as a die-hard conservative once he gets in office. That points to a fundamental question for voters still considering whom to support. Will Romney aim to please his party's conservatives once he's in office, the way he did during the primaries? Or, will he move to the middle, recognizing that's where the country is and where he'll need to be to get anything done in Washington?
Romney's past flip-flopping doesn't bother many of these people. For a sizable group, it gives them hope that a vote for his economic policies won't lead to an extreme conservative agenda. "I'm working under the assumption that the Senate stays blue, and that Mitt Romney has shown a willingness to pursue pragmatic rather than idealistic ends," writes Peter Bryan, an Obama 2008 Pennsylvania voter who is leaning toward Romney. He notes approvingly that Romney will be pragmatic because he "is the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, as we've learned so far." Some would like to see a little more shape-shifting from the candidate. "I would definitely vote for Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate," says Mary from Northern Virginia. "I am frightened by the risks of [the] Mitt who picked Paul Ryan."
But they wouldn't be independents if they all saw things the same way. "Romney's willingness to transfigure himself into whatever people want to hear is very off-putting and gives me doubts about his character," writes Joe from Wisconsin. "I understand the need to be less than forthright--you tell people that you are going to touch their entitlements and they whip themselves into a frenzy. But a president with character should at least try to convince the mob rather than running with it. What if the mob is leading us off of an unknown cliff?"
For Grant, a lifelong Republican from West Virginia, he's thinking about voting for Romney because it might change the party from within. "I know the real Romney from his Olympics days, governorship days, and Bain days (before it became politically incorrect to make money on Wall Street). I never thought the GOP minders would let him come out and talk about his family, religion, and practical--dare I say, moderate--approaches. The GOP Politburo has forced a VP candidate on him and also a narrow message. My vote is for the long view--assisting the GOP to cleanse itself of the "little tent" views .... I've been impressed that just before the debate, Romney took some initiative and broke away from the party line .... If he will keep showing he can do this, I'd consider voting for him."