Obama's actions tell more than polls do

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The polls I was looking at most closely seemed to suggest that the first debate helped Romney, yes, but more importantly that the president took a hit. His numbers lurched downward in several swing states I am watching diligently. In particular, it seemed that marginal Democrats and downscale voters moved back to the shelter of undecided status. David Axelrod and his associates doubtless saw the same thing, prompting them to change their tone. Suddenly they were meaner and tougher in their messages, even strident, like drill sergeants prepping their troops for a pass-in-review by the brass. In effect, minorities and blue dogs who had strayed were being herded back into formation. It was awkward. It was ugly.

Having a fractured or even unenthusiastic base is almost the worst thing that can happen to a campaign headed for the finish line. When you need to be wooing the swing voter with sweet-talking, nonpartisan crossover messaging, you don’t need to be preaching your own religion on the street corner with a megaphone. But you have no choice if your base is vacillating. You have to shout. It’s not that the Obama insiders fear that many Democrats will cross over and actually vote for Romney, but they worry that stubborn donkeys will just hunker down during the last weeks of the campaign, not talking to their neighbors, not throwing a few dollars into the online contribution bucket, perhaps not voting.

The point is that actions speak louder than words, and perhaps are even more accurate than public polls. Instead of looking at the latest Gallup or Pew surveys, follow the president’s spin. Is he speaking to his base or undecided voters? Joe Biden’s performance in the VP debates is best understood as an awkward attempt to regain the support of wavering blue-collar and union Democrats who are starting to lose hope in the Obama-Biden game plan for economic recovery. The smirks, the interruptions, the badgering were for Teamsters, not swing voters. It made clear that the base needed bolstering.

As we move toward Election Day, here’s one other thing I have learned to look for, something I learned from the great ad maker Roger Ailes back in 1986. We were working on the reelection campaign for California Gov. George Deukmejian. Ailes told me to watch for our opponent, Tom Bradley, to signal his surrender by doing a “sweater ad” in which he would speak platitudes, giving up the attack. Ailes pointed out that when a candidate knows he’s whipped, he starts worrying about his legacy, so he tries to strike a likable pose after so much stridency. Sure enough, Bradley did just what Ailes predicted, airing a capitulation commercial, dressed casually.

If President Obama gives us a fireside-chat ad, discussing leadership and our shared futures, decked out in a cable-knit sweater, you can stop reading the Gallup polls. It will be over.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.