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Both camps court undecided in Virginia
Monday, September 10, 2012
RICHMOND (AP) — To President Barack Obama and the Republican who wants his job, Mitt Romney, some of the most valuable people on earth are Mary Hensley, Elisa Oliver and Bill Liepis. They are undecided voters in Virginia, a swing state where the White House race is dead even.
These are diligent and discerning voters, and neither candidate will win their support easily.
“I can’t say I’ve heard anything yet that really helps me make my decision,” said Hensley, who has grown grandchildren but is secretive about her age. She said she has never missed voting in an election and dutifully watched both political conventions the past two weeks hoping for some specifics she can use to lock in her vote.
“All I saw them do is just try to tear down the other party,” she said, shaking her head in dismay as she and several friends huddled at a suburban Richmond bagel shop for their daily late breakfast and coffee.
For 44 years, Virginia was an electoral afterthought in presidential campaigns while Republicans dominated every election. Obama broke the GOP stranglehold in 2008, and Virginia’s 13 electoral votes clinched the presidency for him. Republicans have worked ever since to reclaim the state, and both sides view it as critical to their hopes of victory.
The most recent statewide polling by Quinnipiac University, done in July, shows Obama and Romney tied at 44 percent apiece.
Virginia voters are still adjusting to life in the spotlight of a battleground state.
This election finds Virginia’s electorate segregated into three main groups: committed Republicans, driven more by the imperative to oust Obama than any deep love for Romney; committed Democrats, just as driven to re-elect Obama though many wish he’d made good on what he promised four years ago; and the uncommitted, who seem unimpressed with either candidate and sick of being carpet-bombed with millions of dollars’ worth of acidic ads.
Much of it comes from wealthy super PACs, organizations ideologically allied with but operationally independent from the campaigns. Some disclose their donors, but others don’t.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of political cash in Virginia elections, such independent groups through August had already spent more than $37 million on ads that now run back-to-back, cluttering television programming and wearing voters’ patience threadbare. And that doesn’t include advertising the candidates themselves run.
Hensley, whose morning ritual opens with cable network news and weather before she heads out for bagels with her buddies, said she couldn’t bear to turn her television on Friday. But it’s not just television: she said it comes her way in targeted direct mail and in unwanted automated calls from anonymous numbers.
“I’m waiting to see if there is an agreement to stop this biased, partisan negativity I hear in politics all the time today,” said Liepis, a 72-year-old retired Army colonel who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. The conventions, he said, did little to dampen the caustic tone.
Viewership was tepid for both conventions. TLC’s new reality series about a self-proclaimed “redneck” family, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” drew more viewers in the prized 18- to 49-year-old age group than the GOP convention did on its penultimate night Aug. 29. A week later, nearly as many Americans tuned into the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants on NBC as those who watched former President Bill Clinton’s rousing address to the Democratic convention on all other channels.
Some who did watch weren’t impressed.
Elisa Oliver, a 27-year-old Starbucks barista, is leaning toward Obama because she’s turned off by the GOP’s positions on abortion and other women’s issues. She voted for Obama in 2008 — the first ballot she ever cast — when she was freshly graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a religious studies degree. But her concerns about the economy and the consequences of the $16 trillion national debt for America’s twentysomethings keep her from locking in a second vote for Obama.
“The debt is always a concern, and that is where I want more details,” she said.
Oliver had never watched national party conventions before, but this year she stuck it out through both of them. They seemed little more than pep rallies, she said, except maybe for tough-guy movie legend Clint Eastwood’s bizarre conversation with an empty chair.
“He seemed a little unbalanced to me,” she said.
By the Democrats’ Thursday night finale, Oliver figured she’d hear more sound and fury than specifics from Obama. She was right.
“I think I’m going to wait for the debates and hope they get more into specifics in those. But if they don’t, I think I will feel a little lost. Then, I guess, I’ll just have to do a little research, figure it out on my own.”
But all three said that come Nov. 6, they will vote.
Hensley moved to Richmond about 55 years ago from the rugged, lonesome highlands of Wise County, where she said elections found people voting early and often. One way or another, she said, she will cut through all the doubletalk and distortions and make a decision, and she won’t let either side discourage her or scare her away.
“I remember where I grew up it was sometimes tough for people just to get to the polls,” she said. “So, no, I don’t scare real easy.”
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.