Paul Begala on the Swing Voters Who Will Pick the President

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We don’t have a national election for president. We all know that. Thanks to one of the few boneheaded moves by the Founding Fathers, we have 50 statewide elections for presidential electors, who in turn pick our president. The Electoral College means that if you live in California or New York or Illinois (all certain to break for Obama) or Texas (overwhelmingly Republican), your vote essentially doesn’t matter. So right off the bat, 95.4 million Americans can be taken for granted—nearly a third of our population.

And that’s just for starters. If you live in Alaska, you’re in the bag for Romney; Hawaii, mahalo, is for Barack. Utah is Romneyland, and Massachusetts, where Romney was allegedly governor, is solidly for Obama. The truth is, the election has already been decided in perhaps as many as 44 states, with the final result coming down to the half-dozen states that remain: Virginia and Florida on the Atlantic Coast, Ohio and Iowa in the Midwest, and New Mexico and Colorado in the Southwest.

But of course not everyone in those closely divided states will make an electoral difference. We can almost guarantee that 48 percent of each state’s voters will go for Obama, and another 48 percent will decide for Romney. And so the whole shootin’ match comes down to around 4 percent of the voters in six states.

I did the math so you won’t have to. Four percent of the presidential vote in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado is 916,643 people. That’s it. The American president will be selected by fewer than half the number of people who paid to get into a Houston Astros home game last year—and my beloved Astros sucked last year; they were the worst team in baseball. Put another way, there are about as many people in San Jose as there are swing voters who will decide this election. That’s not even as many people as attended Puerto Rican cockfights in the past year—-although there are obvious similarities.

And, oh, the lengths we will go to reach those magical 916,643. The political parties, the campaigns, the super PACs (one of which, the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, I advise), will spend in excess of $2 billion—mostly just to reach those precious few. That works out to $2,181.87 per voter—or as Mitt Romney might call it, pocket change.

Who are these people, these few, these proud? Well, pollsters tell us swing voters are mostly women. They are younger—which blows away the myth that the president has the youth vote locked up. Older voters, like older consumers, are just more set in their ways. Young people are more persuadable about nearly everything. Many swing voters have a high-school diploma but no college degree. And a chunk of them are Hispanic.

So forget about your Uncle Carl, the older white guy who complains endlessly about Obama being a Muslim Marxist. And ignore Aunt Clara, who pines for single-payer health care and is suspicious of Romney’s religion. Focus instead on their daughter-in-law Carlotta, the younger Latina who hasn’t been able to afford college because she’s working her rear off and raising kids. Romney’s message to her is “Obama messed up your life. He has squandered billions and left you worse off. I’m a businessman and I can set things right.” So far, so good.

Where Romney veers off course is when he personally attacks the president, and especially when he refuses to offer a clear economic program for the future. It may be enough to be the anti-Obama, but I wouldn’t bet the presidency on it.

Obama’s message to that same high-school-educated Latina working mom is “I inherited a mess. We’ve begun to turn things around, saving the auto industry, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and creating 4.3 million jobs. But if we elect Romney, we will go back to the old, failed policies of more tax cuts for the rich (did I mention he made millions laying people off?) and gutting education, Medicare, and everything else the middle class depends on.” Where Obama risks losing this swing voter is when he begins to brag about his accomplishments. When times are tough, people don’t want to hear about what a great job you’ve done. They want to know what you’re going to do for them. Here again, the forward-looking agenda is critical.

Don’t expect this swing voter to move any time soon. She knows the election isn’t until November, and she’s not riveted to every gaffe and poll like political junkies are. She’ll watch clips of the conventions, snippets of the debates, and on Nov. 6 she’ll ask herself which candidate can fix our economy for middle-class families like hers. All in all, my guess is she would prefer if the candidates canceled their commercials and just gave her the $2,181.87.