But if likely voters are almost evenly split on who should occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January, they are far less indecisive on who they think will be the next president.
Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) registered voters in a Post-ABC poll in late August said they thought Obama would win while just 34 percent chose Romney, even as the head-to-head vote in that poll stood at 47 percent for Romney and 46 percent for Obama among registered voters.
The story was the same in early July when a Post-ABC poll found the two candidates tied at 47 percent among registered voters in the horse race but Obama led by 58 percent to 34 percent on the question of who will win.
What explains the wide gap between the candidate voters want to win and the one they think will win? Theories abound.
“The ballot question is driven by who voters want to win,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “The ‘Who do you think will win?’ question is driven by pundits and commentators who want Obama to win.”
Added Ayres: “[Comedian] Bill Maher and his ilk affect the thinking of a lot of people on the predictive question but fortunately do not affect the thinking of that many people on the preference question.”
Under Ayres’s line of thinking, the tone of the coverage of the race leads people who want Romney to win to believe that he ultimately won’t — although that sentiment doesn’t change how they plan to vote.
Republicans point to the past week of media coverage of the consulate attack in Libya and other anti-American protests in the region as evidence of the media swaying the predictive question. The coverage, they insist, was heavily focused on whether Romney jumped the gun with his statement on Libya, not on whether the Obama administration’s actions (or lack thereof) may have led to a lack of American leadership in the region.
There’s also a less partisan explanation. That is that people tend to struggle to imagine someone other than the current occupant of the White House as the president until he, well, isn’t anymore — even if they don’t like him or don’t plan to vote for him. So it’s possible that until Nov. 6 — or maybe until the debates start early next month — the numbers on the “who will win” question won’t change.
Just as there are competing theories on the gap between the ballot test and the prediction question, there are a number of operating assumptions about what it could mean for the actual vote.
Human nature is such that people like to be with the person they think looks like a winner — are there really that many people born fans of the L.A. Lakers or the New York Yankees? — and that reality suggests that if the general sense in the electorate is that Obama is going to win, it may tip some undecideds his way just so they can say they voted for the victor.
Not so, according to Ed Goeas, a longtime Republican pollster. “Large numbers of people saying that your candidate is going to win is not a good thing,” he said. “It has a dampening effect on driving your candidate’s vote to turn out. It allows other things in a person’s busy day to become more important because their candidate is going to win anyway.”
There is some evidence that Goeas is on to something. As we mentioned, Obama and Romney were running neck and neck among likely voters in an Post-ABC poll earlier this month. But among registered voters Obama led by 50 percent to 44 percent. That trend has been apparent in a slew of national polls for months; the more the sample is trimmed to those absolutely planning to vote on Nov. 6, the better Romney performs.
There’s not enough evidence on either side of the argument to conclusively say that Obama’s lead on the “who will win” question is good, bad or indifferent to his chances in November. But it’s a fascinating window into the difference between “want” and “will” in politics.