In life, when things seem like a close call in debating whether to take a job or move somewhere or dive deeper into a relationship, we look for a signal of 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 47/47 in a divided country, with the 5 or 6 percent of truly independent voters ultimately determining who will be elected. Will they stay with President Obama? Will they go for Mitt Romney? Or will they split and force us to be up all night on Election Day?
These voters are — as we all sometimes are in our personal lives — very confused and split. They like Obama and have great respect for him and his family, and think he has done some good things during bad times, but wonder if he has the leadership to get us to where the country needs to go. They would like to rehire him for another term, but believe the country is on the wrong track and have questions about his leadership especially on the economy. They aren’t at all satisfied with where the country is at 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 worry that the Republican Party might be too far to the right at this time. They’re giving him a serious look, but he hasn’t closed the deal and voters have lingering concerns.
So in this extremely tight election environment, with each partisan side lined up solidly behind their candidate and independent voters liking and disliking elements of both candidates, those voters are looking for those signals. They’re looking for moments that give them an indication of what the right choice is.
Friday’s poor jobs report may be one of those signals. In the last two months, less 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 jobs number of 69,000 being created 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 to give voters an indication of where they should head. These could include more dramatic economic news; a global event, a candidate misstep, Romney’s vice-presidential pick or the debates. Each of these 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. And it is those moments that we should watch for over the next five months. They’ll be the things that tip the scales.