I spent some time this week interviewing undecided voters in the suburbs of Denver, which will figure heavily in deciding who wins the crucial swing state of Colorado. Many of these voters are forming a view of the race and the economy that’s a bit more in sync with Obama’s framing of the situation.
That said, it’s also striking how open these voters — even ones who voted for Obama last time — are to a change, and how much they want to hear more from Mitt Romney about why he is the right alternative. Yet they mostly don’t understand what alternative Romney is offering.
Overall, most voters I spoke to, even those who lean Republican, have absorbed a long view of the Obama presidency. They think he was dealt an extraordinarily tough hand and that he’s probably done the best he could under the circumstances. They reject the idea that Obama’s response to those circumstances was a failure — as Romney has charged — only professing disappointment in him for falling short of their expectations, which they have since calibrated.
Jeff, an independent who works at a foundation in Denver but lives in outlying Wheat Ridge, voted for Obama last time but now says he’s undecided and is leaning marginally towards Romney. He sounded a refrain I heard often: “I think he did the best he could. It was a tough position to be in. I think anybody would have had great difficulty.”
Jeff is fully aware of Romney’s arguments — his pledge to get the economy going through tax cuts and deregulation — but doesn’t buy them yet. “It’s been tried before, and failed,” he said. “There’s no fresh approach from Romney that I see.” It’s because Jeff doesn’t believe that Romney could do better on the economy that Obama’s one term of experience remains a reason to vote for him again — it’s “on the job training” that Romney lacks. But Jeff thinks things have stagnated and he could vote for Romney: “I can be swayed either way.”
Sue, a personal trainer and Democrat from Lakewood who voted for Obama last time, is exactly the sort he needs again — yet she remains undecided. She repeatedly claimed Obama had inherited a terrible situation. “It takes a lot more time than four years to turn a big ship,” she said. “There were a lot of big issues he needed to deal with.”
Sue, too, was conversent in Romney’s arguments about the economy, but didn’t believe them. “I don’t beleve he has a magic lamp, where he can make a wish and it just happens,” she said. And yet she said her own personal situation had not improved, and that she was fully open to voting for Romney if he gave her a good reason to.
Another independent from Wheat Ridge professed himself “disappointed” in Obama and said he was seriously considering Romney. But of Obama, he added: “He was doomed from the start.”
Ashley, a nursing student and independent from Araphoe County who voted for McCain last time, seemed dead set against voting for Obama this time; she says she favors “Republican” ideas on the economy. But she said she still desn’t understand what Romney stands for. “I haven’t really heard that much of what he’s going to do — he’s more just like attacking Obama,” she said, adding that she wants to hear more.
Another independent from the area, a computer consultant, voted for Obama last time, likes his prescriptions for the future and agrees more spending would juice the economy. But this isn’t enough to lock him down, and he wants to see what Romney has to offer: “As an independent that’s what I want to see — a choice.”
Some independents in this culturally divided state have turned sharply on Obama because he fell short of his promise of transformation. One Obama backer from Colorado Springs reported widespread dissatisfation among indys who backed him last time: “They seem to think it’s a given he should have been a Ronald Reagan — they are very impatient with the situation. They conclude he is playing an economic division game.”
In the end, what’s striking is how up for grabs these voters are. Like Ron Brownstein, who interviewed Colorado voters a few weeks ago, I came away struck by their pessimism that either candidate can turn around the economy quickly and — as a result — how much slack these voters are cutting for Obama. They value his experience and are sympathetic to his ideas and world view. But that has not yet translated into definite votes for reelection, and they seem plainly open for a change. Yet they still don’t understand what change Romney is offering.
Only two and a half months to go.