Post-Convention, Swing Voters Unswayed

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Pentecostal preacher Tom Atchison of Tampa said he expects to vote for President Obama, even though he disagrees with him on abortion, because of concerns about Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital.

The convention coverage has had a week to settle in, and polls are suggesting that Democrats' momentum out of Charlotte could just be breaking the deadlock in national polls between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But swing voters we met earlier this summer are still leaning the same ways they were weeks ago. The difference, though, is their fuzzy instincts and impressions are crystallizing—revealing partisan battle lines that would have been wholly unpredictable four years ago. 

Fissures in Social Conservative Vote

Tom Atchison is a Pentecostal preacher who runs a soup kitchen for homeless residents in Tampa. He caught “bits and pieces” of the Democratic and Republican conventions, including both Romney and Obama’s speeches. He thought the president's call to support the auto bailout against popular pressure was laudable, while Romney “didn’t impress” him. And he's sounding more certain now which candidate will get his vote in November.

“I’ve voted Republican all my life. This time around I’m still kind of wavering, but I just can’t see voting for Romney,” Atchison told me this week. “I’ve come from being anti, anti, anti-Obama to maybe there’s something to this.”

This was a shift from when we spoke in early August, when Atchison was already considering a vote for Obama after supporting John McCain in 2008, but he wasn’t freely criticizing Romney. Instead, he said then that he was motivated by concerns about program cuts for the homeless.

Now, Atchison said it’s Romney’s record at Bain that troubles him. He said he tries not to pay much attention to all the negative ads, but when one of his congregants told him he’d lost his job as part of a restructuring by Bain, Atchison decided the Romney attack ads might be making a valid point.

Atchison's still getting used to the idea that he'll be aligning with the Democratic Party, which he's used to rejecting because of its positions on social issues.

“You know, I've just been a Republican so much of my life, it’s hard for me to go that direction because of the other issues that the Democratic Party stands more for," he said. "I’m not for abortion and some of those issues that it seems like the Republicans stand firmer for. But I got to say, I’m siding more towards voting for Obama mainly because I don’t trust Romney at all, and at least with Obama it appears that what he’s doing appears to be going in the right direction.”

Voters like Atchison suggest that Romney hasn't eliminated persistent doubts among white evangelical voters that characterized the Republican primary process. And Romney needs them to make up for Obama’s commanding lead among black and Hispanic voters. Strategists suggest that Romney’s pathway to victory depends on securing at least sixty percent of the white vote.

A Reuters polling analysis this week signaled trouble there, with Romney’s wealth as much as his Mormon faith seeding mistrust. Romney only leads Obama 46 to 29 percent among middle-income white voters in 11 southern states, Reuters found.

Atchison’s increased discomfort with Romney also suggests that the Democrats' post-convention edge may have as much to do with advertising as soaring speeches in Charlotte. President Obama and his backers ran more than twice the amount of ads as Romney and his supporters during the two weeks of the conventions, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

No Veep Dealbreaker

Unlike in 2008, President Obama does not seem to be benefitting from Republican defectors turned off by the GOP vice presidential nominee. A CNN survey taken after the Republican convention showed Ryan besting Joe Biden’s favorability rating. The Ryan pick was not decisive for Colorado voter Dick Hinson, a moderate Republican who lives in Denver and works in economic development in suburban Arapaho County. He voted for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and he said admired John McCain in 2008.

“And I was prepared to vote for him no questions asked, until he chose Sarah Palin,” Hinson told me when we met in Aurora in July. By then, he was already prepared to vote Republican in 2012. “I’m leaning towards Romney. Romney is a businessman, and I think Romney will approach the office for the first time in many years as a businessman who understands the limitations of government.”

After the conventions, and the addition of Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, Hinson is still fairly certain he’ll back Romney—partially because he thinks Romney will moderate Ryan’s more extreme positions.

“I think Paul Ryan is a very smart man,” Hinson said by phone this week. “ I think he has some good ideas, but I don't think he's going to implement those ideas without the approval with Mitt Romney and I don't think Mitt is on board with all the things that Paul Ryan has recommended.”

Still, Hinson acknowledges that Romney has shown some of his own weaknesses of late—but it’s not enough to change his vote.

“The international gaffes that Mitt Romney made when he was over in Britain, that showed that he isn’t skilled at this point in international relations,” Hinson said. “But that wasn’t something that that would sway me from voting for him. I can’t imagine something that he could do, or that could be revealed that would really swing me.”

Lingering Turnout Questions

Another storyline to emerge from the Democratic National Convention is that the party succeeded in jolting disappointed Obama voters out of their doldrums. Nate Silver reported at FiveThirtyEight this week that polls of likely voters suggest a “decline in the ‘enthusiasm gap’” among Democrats.

That’s not the case, though, for Steve Martinez of Pueblo, Colorado. When I met him in July, the retired steelworker said he couldn't vote for President Obama again because he hadn’t delivered on his promises of change, but he could never bring himself to back a Republican.

“I don't think I'm voting this year. I think I'm out of it,” he told me then, even though he’d been a regular voter in presidential races. 

When I reached him this week, Martinez told me he’s sticking to his plan to stay home in November. That’s also what he’s been telling Obama campaign volunteers who have been repeatedly calling and coming to his front door. Martinez is a coveted Hispanic voter in Colorado's Pueblo County, a Democratic stronghold where the Obama campaign would like to run up its margins to balance the returns from the red rural communities and swing suburbs. 

“They’re been here quite a few times,” Martinez said this week. “ I tell them the same thing. I'm not voting.”