In a military campaign, plans are informed by intelligence reports. In political campaigns, we turn to polling. Of all the current poll numbers, the most important one is 92 percent, the number of voters who say they have not only made up their minds but are unlikely to change them. Its implications are confirmed by other polls showing Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama locked in a statistical tie — roughly 46% to 46% — for months.
That means the decision is in the hands of the remaining 8 percent. Who are they and what do they want?
Past history suggests these answers.
The 8 percent want government to work. They disapprove of extreme partisanship or ideology and will vote for the candidate whom they think best able to "bring us together." In 2008, Obama was seen as that man.
The 8 percent want a candidate who has the aura of a president. The 1980 race was close because those swing voters who were dissatisfied with Carter didn't think a Hollywood actor was presidential material. Once they decided that Reagan was indeed "presidential" in his manner, the race became a landslide.
The 8 percent want a leader they can like as a person. In 2000, a lot of people just didn't like Al Gore; in 2004, they didn't like John Kerry. That was a big part of why George W. Bush was elected both times.
The 8 percent want a president who is up to the job. Jimmy Carter was seen as a nice enough man, but floundering in every direction. Competence counts.
Both campaigns are already addressing these four points. Democrats put flags in the background and the presidential seal on the podium to underscore Obama's position as Commander-in-Chief. They highlight Romney's partisanship by calling him a panderer with no principles, challenge his likability by labeling him an unfeeling rich guy who made his fortune killing U.S. jobs after strapping his dog to the roof of his car, and berate his competence by saying he either lied or bungled while filling out government forms and then went on to be a lousy governor.
Team Romney says Obama has demeaned the presidency by making cheap shot personal attacks and is a divisive partisan because he rammed health care through the Congress on a straight party line vote. They undermine his likability by tying him to "Chicago style politics" and his competence by claiming that all the problems in the economy remain unsolved.
Those who have already responded to these arguments are now firmly imbedded in the 92 percent, one side or the other, but the 8 percent remain unmoved because they want one more thing — a leader who projects a clear path for the future rather than a grim litany of blame from the past. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all won by virtue of their capacity to do that.
That means that the debates, which will attract the largest audience of any in the campaign, could decide this election. The 8 percent will be watching as Romney and Obama stand before the cameras as equals. They will be influenced by nuances of mannerism and tone, and listen as each challenges the other's assumptions and lays out his own set of solutions. They will decide which man they like the better, trust the more and believe has more of the relevant answers — and skills — to deal with our problems. All of those things matter.
However, history shows that the most important additional thing a candidate can add to that list in order to win would be a well-crafted, credible vision of optimism and confidence about America's future.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.