Years ago, a polling strategy that was fashionable involved asking undecided voters whether there was a single reason that caused them to hesitate when voting for one candidate or the other. The intent of the concept was to uncover latent negatives that could be addressed in campaign messaging, to persuade the undecided to move one way or another. It seemed a good idea when I first came upon the practice, but I have generally dropped its usage in my own polls because, too often, the answer isn’t necessarily anything you could do anything about. For example, more often than not, voters just say they don’t know or care enough either way to tell me whether or why they might hesitate in voting for either candidate. Huge majorities of undecided voters in most races are simply know-nothings, so you don’t get a lot of insight probing their empty heads to find a way forward.
But this is not always true. Sometimes there are very palpable reasons for hesitation, and it can be worth asking about them. This is particularly true in primary races, where the electorate of likely voters is more attentive and sophisticated. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in regard to Mitt Romney. As a second-time contestant, most voters who are likely to vote in a presidential primary will know who Romney is and what he’s all about. Or will they? I am not polling the race and don’t have a firm grasp on how things are stacking up, but it seems Romney might be having some problems closing the sale.
Because I am convinced that Romney is the only certain winner in the current field, I worry about the hesitation of many to support him. Those who are holding back, if they have a reason for hesitation, need to engage and resolve their concerns. Party leaders in local areas where the voting starts earliest need to urge on this process, coaxing more voters to think more deeply about the race, the prospects for victory by each candidate and the issues that stand in the way of making a decision. Voters who are holding back need to crystallize their own concerns now and set those before Romney for a response. Resolving concerns is a two-way process. Yes, Romney must keep reassuring Republicans of his opposition to going ahead with ObamaCare, but if there are wider concerns of voters, they must hit these head-on in conversations with Romney. In some ways, I think Romney and undecided voters need to meet one another in a series of Nixon-style “man in the middle” forums, with ambivalent voters voicing their deepest concerns and allowing Mitt to respond. Dialogue needs to start now, for all our sakes.
David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.