The Dual Discontented

If the sliver of truly undecided voters left in the 2012 presidential election could condense their attitude toward their two principal alternatives into a single question, they might be asking: Do you have anything else back there on the shelf?

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are facing resoundingly negative attitudes among the small share of uncommitted voters who could tip their battle for the White House, according to analyses of several recent public polls shared with National Journal.

It's not unusual for most undecided voters to hold negative views about an incumbent; it is unusual for undecided voters to simultaneously express negative attitudes about the challenger. In most respects, undecided voters displayed more favorable attitudes toward their choices in both the 2004 and 2008 races, polls at the time found. "One might think that undecided voters would typically be down on both candidates," says Michael Dimock, associate director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "That makes 2012 stand out all the more, perhaps reflecting the bad economic conditions."

This year's dynamic of parallel discontent virtually ensures a blisteringly negative race, as each man struggles to secure the tenuous allegiance of voters unconvinced that either represents more than the lesser of two evils. These attitudes mean that Romney's task is less to persuade than to reassure undecided voters already inclined to dismiss the incumbent. Obama's more complex challenge is to convince voters dissatisfied with him that they would like Romney even less.

"If voters are undecided, by default it means they don't like the incumbent," says GOP pollster Glen Bolger (whose partner, Neil Newhouse, polls for Romney). "That's why undecideds usually break against the incumbent. And what's why the Obama campaign is focusing on negative ads: because they have to disqualify Romney with those voters."

Newhouse says that unattached (or loosely attached) voters represent at most 10 percent of the electorate and "tend to be women "¦ lower educated "¦ a little younger, and they are not paying much attention right now." Joel Benenson, Obama's pollster, believes that in battleground states as few as 5 or 6 percent of voters remain undecided.

Whatever the exact number, recent surveys from several polling organizations show strikingly bleak numbers for each man among these uncommitted voters. Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with a Republican partner, recently cumulated the results among undecided voters from the April, May, and June surveys to produce a sample large enough to analyze. What he found was unsettling for both sides.

Just 17 percent of those undecided voters said that the country was on the right track. Just 24 percent approved of Obama's job performance (compared with 55 percent who disapproved). Obama's personal standing was only slightly better: 28 percent of those undecided voters viewed him favorably, compared with 40 percent who viewed him unfavorably. But Romney's personal position was even weaker: Only 15 percent of the undecided viewed him favorably, compared with 43 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

The numbers were similar in a compilation of findings from Pew surveys of undecided voters in March and June. Only 20 percent of them approved of Obama's performance. A modest 31 percent viewed the president favorably, but even that was better than Romney's meager 17 percent showing among the same audience.

Undecided voters in the past two presidential races weren't as gloomy about their options. In the cumulative results from three Pew polls across September and October 2008, both Obama and John McCain drew positive personal ratings from almost three-fifths of undecided voters. In 2004, according to a compilation of Pew surveys from that summer and fall, undecided voters delivered a negative verdict on Bush's job performance (with only 29 percent approving); but nearly half of undecided voters then expressed a favorable personal opinion of Bush and a comparable number said the same about Democrat John Kerry.

Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's president, says that many of today's voters unenthused about both Obama and Romney ultimately may stay home; some Republicans believe that Obama's negative barrage against Romney is largely intended to discourage voters whom the president is unlikely to win.

But inevitably, many of these "dual discontented" will show up, and Newhouse argues that Romney faces an easier task than Obama among them. "I'd much rather be us than him right now," Newhouse says. "Voters know where they are on Obama. The jury is still out on Mitt Romney and because "¦ they are so disappointed with the president, I think they are going to give us time to lay out the Romney case."

Benenson, though, derides as "wishful thinking" the belief that Romney can scrub his image with undecided voters more easily than the president can. Romney, he says, "is going into the race with the highest negatives of any previous nominee in either party "¦ and those feelings about him "¦ are very intense." Even some Republicans fear that Obama's withering assault on Romney's career at Bain Capital may be closing the window for the challenger among some undecided voters faster than his campaign believes.

Hart sees the rise of the dual discontented as creating historic challenges for each candidate. Obama, he says, must defy historical trends to win reelection at a time when voters, including the undecided, are so worried about the economy. Conversely, he notes, Romney would defy the precedent that the candidate with the more positive personal image almost always wins. "One of these two guys is going to make history," Hart says, "unless Romney becomes a lot more acceptable to the American people or feelings about the economic conditions change."