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October 18, 2010

I can remember meeting up with Haley Barbour, now Governor of Mississippi, for lunch in the summer of 1991, at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C., where the conversation quickly turned to the 1992 presidential election.

President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings stood at nearly 90% in the aftermath of the popular and successful Gulf War. I commented that President Bush should be re-elected fairly easily. “Not so fast”, Haley retorted, right there predicting the possibility of unforeseen bumps in the road.

President Bush went on to run a very mediocre campaign and squandered the popularity he had accumulated from the Gulf War, losing to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in a three-man race that included Independent candidate Ross Perot.

What Haley instinctively knew was that poll numbers don’t mean very much. Elections are won by individual votes cast on Election Day – a single Tuesday in November.

While it is impossible to say for sure how things will go in the mid-term congressional elections on November 2, an avalanche of daily tracking polls indicates it will be a great day for Republicans.  Yet elections always come down to individual voters – neighbors – up and down average streets across the land - who will decide things on that Tuesday.

There’s a growing trend among voters to wait until the last day to decide for whom they will vote. With so much information available, and issues changing all the time, voters like the idea of making their decision very late, many on Election Day itself.

Stu Spencer, chief architect/campaign manager, for President Ronald Reagan’s political campaigns, dating back to his first foray into the 1966 California gubernatorial election, noted he could “feel” a winning campaign. He was not a big believer in staged focus groups as such; he instinctively knew how things were going and whether the campaign was on the right track.

This has been the Democrats’ problem since the start of the campaign season.  Voters feel the country is going in the wrong direction, and they hold President Barrack Obama, and the Democrats, who control both Houses of Congress, responsible for fixing it.

Making matters worse, Democrats have failed to own up to this responsibility, and the voters don’t like it.  President Obama and his political team have spent too much time casting blame for the slow recovery on the economic situation they inherited from former President George W. Bush, the Republican minority in Congress, and even the Fox News Channel.

None of this has impacted voters, who simply want conditions to improve. President Obama would be far better off promoting his agenda of federal spending through the stimulus package, national health care reform, Wall Street and banking/credit industry modification, and the infuse of federal assistance to automobile companies, and other industries.

Had the President proceeded this way, voters could have made up their mind about whether the President deserved more time to show that things were starting to work.

There is precedent for this.  President Reagan didn’t see much improvement in the economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter before the 1982 mid-term elections, and he was able to keep his losses to a minimum running on the theme of “staying the course”.

It is worth reflecting on how voters go about the business of voting on Election Day. It’s quiet in a voting booth, and voters process their thoughts carefully when making a decision.

Here is one of the greatest political newspaper ads ever created that sums up the process pretty well. It was published in the final week of the 1968 presidential campaign by the Nixon campaign in the New York Times.

It ran under the one-word headline, “Tuesday”.

“It will be quiet on Tuesday, No speeches. No motorcades. No paid announcement. It’s a very special day, just for grown-ups. America votes Tuesday.

"On Tuesday, the shouting and the begging and the threatening and the heckling will be silenced. It’s very quiet in a voting booth.

"And nobody’s going to help you make up your mind. So, just for that instant, you’ll know what the man you’re voting for will do a thousand times a day for the next four years.

"Now it’s your turn”.