President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are both correct about one thing—the November election will present a stark choice between them and their contrasting philosophies about what government should do for everyday people. Obama says more and Romney says less. And this divergence will make for a "base election" in which each campaign does all it can to, above all, motivate its supporters to go to the polls on November 6.
The number of undecided voters has been dwindling, and even though they can make the difference in close races, both campaigns appear to have concluded that the better bet is to shore up their base voters, who are more likely in the end to actually go to the polls as they have in the past.
That means Obama will move aggressively to court single women, Latinos, young people, African Americans, environmentalists, and those who favor a strong government role in national life, all of whom voted heavily for him in 2008. He is already doing this.
On Monday, during his three-day bus trip through Iowa, the president threw red meat to Democrats when he said Romney and his running mate, conservative Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, want to shred the social safety net by weakening the government's role in Medicare and other programs. Obama argues that the GOP ticket is more interested in feathering the nests of the rich rather than defending the middle class, a theme which fires up Democratic audiences.
On the other hand, the fact that Romney chose Ryan for his vice president suggests that he also regards the November balloting as a "base election," in which he needs to rally conservatives as much as possible. Ryan has always been popular on the right, and he is now inextricably linked to Romney. The choice of Ryan may not go over well with some voters, including the elderly in swing states such as Florida and Ohio. Democrats are already blasting Ryan's conservative budget plan, popular among House Republicans, for proposing to change Medicare in the future into a voucher system and for recommending severe cuts in many programs.
But the conservative rhetoric by Romney and Ryan, including attacks on Obama's economic record, fires up Republican audiences. The GOP is aiming to animate white male voters, conservative Christians and others who regularly attend religious services, married women, conservative Tea Party activists, and other smaller-government advocates as part of its base coalition. Underscoring that goal is the announcement Tuesday that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a hard-line conservative known for his bluntness and combativeness, will be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in Tampa later this month.
Political analysts at NBC News say that "because of the intensity number we've seen in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, there are indications that we could very well be headed to a base election similar to 2004. Undecideds don't trust Obama on the economy, but they like Romney even less. And their enthusiasm is way down. And they very well could stay home."
Among undecided voters, 29 percent give a favorable rating to Obama but 42 percent see him unfavorably. Romney does even worse; 16 percent see him favorably and 44 percent see him unfavorably, according to NBC.
Under these circumstances, it's understandable why the campaigns are turning to their base voters as the key to victory.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook and Twitter.