Political pollsters say the presidential debates could play a big role in swaying undecided voters this election season.
WBEZ is tracking three undecideds leading up to Election Day, and we hosted a watch party at our studios for the first debate Wednesday night.
But at this watch party, the most surprising moment wasn’t when Democratic President Barack Obama got snippy with the moderator, or when Republican Mitt Romney brought up Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
It was about 34 minutes into the debate, when Jay Abedelal – one of our undecided voters from Chicago – chimed in with this: “I actually like Romney in this debate so far,” Abedelal said. “He’s not Bruce Lee, but, you know.”
You might remember Abedelal as the disillusioned college recruiter who named Bruce Lee as his ideal candidate. But he’s also the guy who says he’d never vote Republican, because he feels the GOP vilified his Muslim faith after the attacks of Sept. 11.
And yet there he was, watching Romney on CNN, praising his sincerity.
“Romney’s using a lot of heart, passion. I like that,” he said.
Political pollsters say this is why the sliver of remaining undecided voters are so hard to predict. One thing I learned quickly: They don’t like negativity, like when President Obama attacked his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush for leaving him with a $1 trillion budget deficit.
“I mean, just get over it. We know!” said library technician Bridget Kerans, from Schaumburg.
Keran is the ex-Hillary Clinton Democrat who’s sworn off voting for the president.
In studio, our third undecided voter – Kurt Jurgens – agreed about the negativity. He’s a life-long Republican from south suburban New Lenox, who’d been leaning toward Obama.
“Yeah, the past doesn’t matter. The question is how are we going to address the things that we have to deal with now?” Jurgens asked the television.
“Exactly. Learn from the past, talk about it briefly, as a lesson, and move effin’ forward,” said Abedelal.
But after Mitt Romney mentioned how he doesn’t want to cut military spending as a way to help balance the budget, both Jurgens and Jay Abedelal jumped in once again, saying they disagree.
Kerans, meanwhile, was quick to defend Romney.
“Well, it’s not to keep us in a war, it’s to keep us strong,” she said of Romney’s plan to keep military spending intact. “I’m just saying, I don’t want a weak military.”
And so the three had their own sort of debate, as the TV droned in the background. They agree on a lot – they’re sick of negativity, and they say they’re worse-off financially than they were four years ago. When the debate was finally over, I got a consistent reaction to President Obama’s performance: all say the president both attacked too much, and also seemed to be playing defense.
Mitt Romney got higher marks for being more authentic and measured.
Just last week all three undecided voters had acknowledged President Obama’s eloquence and charisma. But Wednesday night, they said Romney was the clear winner.
The question is, did this change who they’d vote for if the election were right then, just after the debate?
“I think that Obama really ruined it for himself more than Romney won it,” said Kurt Jurgens, who had been leaning toward voting for Mr. Obama when we first spoke last week. “At this point, I think I’m still leaning towards Obama.”
Kerans, meanwhile, said she’d been inclined to write in Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who leans Libertarian. But she seems to have shifted her opinion a bit after the debate.
“I would probably take a chance with Romney,” she said. “Hey, we had, already, four years, and we’ve had plenty of one-term presidents, so what the hay?”
And finally, what about Jay Abedelal, the Bruce Lee fan?
“I probably wouldn’t vote for anyone at this point,” remarked Abedelal. “I think Obama disappointed me. And I think Romney really saw blood and went for it, and uh, I wouldn’t vote for anyone today.”