Monday's debate didn't show a lot of difference on foreign policy
Voters looking for those differences must make choices based on other factors
The presidential race's close margins make undecided voters a highly coveted group
Even undecideds who chose after debate may change their minds by Election Day
For undecided voters still looking for something to move them into the decided column, Monday night’s presidential debate shed little light.
Maintaining Israel as an ally? Both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney agree that relationship is vital and sparred over who is that nation’s biggest defender.
On issuing tough economic sanctions on Iran to deter its quest for nuclear weapons? Again, not much difference there.
Putting pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while working with friends to arm the right rebel group?
Romney says he agrees with Obama that the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should be complete by 2014 and said the president was right to call for the departure of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two also struck similar chords on drone strikes and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
So what’s an undecided voter to do?
Kerry Ladka, who during last week’s town hall debate asked the president who made the decision to cut back security in Benghazi, Libya, said Tuesday that he didn’t get an answer then or Monday night.
So he can’t definitively answer the question “Who are you going to vote for?”
“The president just looked stronger to me. Gov. Romney seemed to parrot everything the president said. I don’t think he had one policy of his own. He just seemed to agree with everything that the president said, from Mubarak to Libya to Afghanistan, troop withdrawals. Gov. Romney didn’t impress me at all. I’m leaning towards President Obama,” Ladka said.
Leaning, he said, but “not quite yet there.”
Ladka isn’t alone. He’s part of a group that according to several polls ranges from 2% to 8% of the electorate, depending on the state.
“I’ve watched both the debates, and this third one, I hope, will help me make a final decision. But I just feel that I need someone to kind of rock my world so that I’ll make my decision,” voter Kathleen Jansen said Monday evening, just before the debate.
But plenty of undecided voters didn’t exactly have their worlds rocked by the, at times, agreement-filled foreign policy debate.
“Foreign policy is the one area where Republicans and President Obama’s administration probably have more agreement than on anything else,” Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor, said after the debate.
A Democratic strategist said Romney has launched a revolutionary strategy.
“What I did find interesting tonight in sort of a new strategy is, you beat a guy by agreement,” said James Carville, a CNN political contributor. “I don’t remember the great Reagan beating Carter by agreement. The whole idea was that you thought of disagreement on one hand, Obama has weakened America, he’s the worst president we ever had, and on the other hand, he agrees with him tonight somewhere like 10 different times.”
All of that agreement did little to move the poll numbers.
The debate was largely a tie, according to a CNN/ORC International poll conducted right after Monday night’s face-off. The survey also found that 24% of debate-watchers said the event made them more likely to vote for Obama; 25% said it made them more likely to vote for Romney. Half said it would have no effect on their vote.
Those numbers closely mirror figures from last week’s CNN poll.
In fact, the number of undecided voters who have shed that title has remained fairly consistent for months, despite the millions of dollars poured into advertising in swing states aimed at wooing that segment of the electorate. Many of those undecided voters, political experts say, are either fickle folks who’ve wavered between their choices for commander in chief for months or politically disinclined people who skipped the debate in favor of Monday night football.
“These are people who are genuinely indifferent about politics, and if they do (care about politics), they are disappointed in the person in their party,” said John Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University’s political science department. “You have friends who, when you go out to dinner, are the last ones to choose. These are the same types of people.”
Those people include Florida families who’ve lost their homes in the housing crisis. They are recent college graduates in Ohio who may have voted for Obama in 2008 but are now feeling disillusioned because they cannot find a job and are living at home. They are unemployed auto workers in Michigan and coal miners in Pennsylvania.
All groups the candidates are trying to woo.
“I think last night, you saw that Mitt Romney was playing for the center. He was playing for the undecideds, at the end, when he talked about bipartisanship,” said Amy Holmes, anchor of GBTV’s “Real News” at the Blaze, a conservative news site owned by Glenn Beck. “President Obama was playing to his base. Those zingers were went to gin up his base because, right now, it is just a get-out-the-vote effort at this point.”
The Obama campaign said Romney’s agreeable attitude was a disingenuous ploy to appeal to voters.
“I didn’t see anything that the governor disagreed on. And he seemed to be desperately trying to demonstrate he agreed with the president’s policies,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It was sort of amazing.”
Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, disagreed on the lack of disagreement.
“I think this was a fantastic debate,” he said on ABC, adding that viewers heard from Romney some “clear distinctions on how we should go forward in this country.”
The debate did help clinch a decision for at least a few voters.
“Raise your hand if tonight’s debate has actually changed your opinion, that you are now moving out of the undecided category into the decided category. Raise your hand,” CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien asked a gathering of 25 undecided voters who helped rate the debate.
More than half of the hands shot into the air.
But that doesn’t mean those types of voters will stick with their choice, said Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has polled thousands of voters over the past year.
“Whatever that share of undecided voters is it’s not the same … every day,” Vavreck said. “They move in and out of that category every day. … Half of the people who are undecided in December have come to a vote choice and may have changed their minds since then. There is a good bit of fluidity to that chunk of people.”
CNN’s Ashley Kilough contributed to this report.