In life, when decisions seem like a close call--say, in debating whether to take a job, or move somewhere, or dive deeper into a relationship -- we look for a signal showing which way to go. In facing really difficult choices, we are open to all kinds of signals. They could come from a movie that pops up on television, something someone says at the store, or a sudden tragedy that reminds us how precious life is. We search for those signals at key moments.
The same is true for independent voters in this very, very close presidential election. If one looks at the polls, this election seems to hover at 47 percent/47 percent in a divided country; the 5 or 6 percent of truly independent voters will ultimately determine who will be elected. Will these voters stay with President Obama? Will they go for Mitt Romney? Or will they split and force us to stay up all night on Election Day?
These voters are -- as we all sometimes are in our personal lives -- very confused. They like Obama and have great respect for him and his family; they think he has done some good things during bad times, but they wonder if he has the leadership to get the country to where it needs to go. They would like to rehire him for another term, but they believe the country is on the wrong track and have questions about the president's leadership, especially on the economy. They aren’t at all satisfied with where things are today.
As for Romney, those voters think he has a great family, and they have respect for many moments in his career. They like some of his ideas but wonder if a wealthy corporate businessman will understand their lives. They are looking for someone new, but they worry that the Republican Party might be too far to the right at this time. These voters are gving Romney a serious look, but they have lingering concerns; he hasn’t closed the deal.
So in this extremely tight election environment, with each side lined up solidly behind its candidate, and with independents liking and disliking elements of both candidates, those voters in the middle are looking for signals. They’re looking for moments that indicate which is the right choice.
Friday’s poor jobs report may be one of those signals. In the past two months, fewer than 150,000 total jobs have been added. Not only is this not enough to keep pace with population growth, it’s also way below even the most conservative estimates. For the Obama campaign, the May job-creation number of 69,000 is extremely bad news at an extremely bad time. This moment is one of those signals that could begin to push swing voters over to Romney. Independents may begin saying, “I really like President Obama, but maybe we should give Romney a shot for four years.”
There’s still a long time until Election Day, and there will be a few more moments that give voters an indication of where they should head. These could include more dramatic economic news; a global event, a candidate's misstep, Romney’s vice presidential pick, or the Obama-Romney debates. Each of these events could cause a swing in this election.
These “signal” moments for independent voters will matter more than television ads or super-PAC spending or candidate appearances. It is those moments that we should watch for over the next five months. They’ll be what tips the scales.