Conventional wisdom holds that with such a small number of voters still undecided, this presidential contest is a base election like 2004, with both candidates focused on turning out their respective party's hard-core supporters. Like much conventional wisdom, there's some truth in this. But it's far from the complete story.
First, there are nearly as many undecided voters today as in other recent elections. Gallup's managing editor told Politico on Aug. 9 that his organization's polling finds 6%-8% of voters are undecided. At this point in 2008, 10% were undecided in Gallup's tracking poll. In 2004, the figure in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking was 8% and in 2000, 9%.
Second, some voters are weakly committed to their choice and could flip. For example, in the July 8 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 24% said they were undecided or could change their minds. In a close race, these voters are the principal source of potential movement. So both sides are working hard to identify and either reinforce or persuade them.
Swing voters are not the only source of movement in the electorate. Less than 60% of eligible voters generally bother to register and turn out. In 2008, 57.48% of the voting-age population turned out, the highest since 1968, when turnout hit 60.84%.
Different groups are affected differently by a campaign's back-and-forth. For example, households with incomes less than $50,000 were 45% of the turnout in 2004 but just 38% in 2008, according to exit polls. Republicans were 37% of the vote in 2004 but only 32% in 2008. Rural Americans were a quarter of the 2004 turnout but 21% four years later. Both camps are organizing to generate higher turnout, but to the reluctant voter their messages and themes may be more important than their get-out-the-vote efforts.
Conventional wisdom is also wrong that 2004 was a base election. President George W. Bush could not have won re-election by only appealing to the GOP base.
His campaign sought to maximize Republican turnout, split independents, and steal more Democrats than Sen. John Kerry stole Republicans. Mr. Bush nearly erased the gender gap, earning 48% of women voters (remember "Security Moms?"), increased his African-American support by 22%, and won 44% of Hispanics. To the extent each side focuses on its base, it's focusing on something that is by definition only a part of their party.
Both candidates will have difficulty converting the other side's supporters and undecided voters because both have high negative ratings. The Pollster.com average of President Barack Obama's favorable-to-unfavorable ratings is 48.1% to 45.4%. Gov. Mitt Romney's is 41.6% to 46.9%.
While Mr. Romney's negatives are higher, he has room to grow because 9.3% of respondents don't have an opinion of him, as compared to 6.8% not having an opinion of Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney's negatives are also easier to reverse. Mr. Obama's, by contrast, are related to his performance in office, especially on the economy. A July 16 CBS/New York Times poll found 46% of voters (and 53% of independents) saying that his economic policies "will never improve" the economy. That's a very harsh assessment.
Only 38% of registered voters in Monday's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll thought Mr. Obama has "good ideas for how to improve the economy," and 43% of adults said in a July 8 Washington Post/ABC News poll that Mr. Obama's handling of the economy was a "major reason to oppose" his candidacy.
Mr. Romney's negatives are more diffuse. Is he really an outsourcer of jobs to China? A rich "vampire capitalist?" Is he "weird," to use a favorite epithet of Mr. Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod?
These are the negatives of the unknown. At next week's convention in Tampa, Mr. Romney will have a very big stage on which to begin dispelling these negatives by providing voters a stronger sense of who he is and what he'll do.
The moment is coming when what each candidate says about himself and his plans is more important than what he says about his opponent. After a brutal summer of negative exchanges between the candidates, voters are increasingly asking what Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are each going to do for America.
In this area, Mr. Romney has a decided advantage, since Mr. Obama doesn't even pretend to offer a second-term vision. Mr. Romney's pick of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate exemplifies the GOP standard-bearer's desire to make this a campaign of big ideas.
Having a governing agenda gives the Romney campaign a significant advantage entering the fall. If pursued with clarity and vigor, it should be enough to win over voters who remain up for grabs—and with them, the election.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 22, 2012.