WASHINGTON — In a race that is expected to come down to a tiny margin of votes in a handful of swing states, more than 80 million eligible Americans will sit out this year’s presidential election.
These potential voters could make all the difference for President Barack Obama — a new survey shows they overwhelmingly support the president over Republican rival Mitt Romney — but they won’t vote for him, even though a majority acknowledge that politics makes a difference in their lives.
A Suffolk University-USA Today survey found that 43 percent of unregistered Americans and 43 percent of registered voters who are unlikely to make it to the polls in November would choose Obama if they were to cast a ballot. Just 14 percent of unregistered Americans and 20 percent of registered but unlikely voters said the same of Romney.
These Americans are not likely to make their voices heard on Election Day because they are paying attention to other things and don’t have faith in the process. Sixty-one percent could not correctly name the current vice president.
Seventy-nine percent think the federal government plays an important role in their lives, but 59 percent say they don’t pay much attention to politics because “nothing ever gets done — it’s a bunch of empty promises,” and 54 percent say they don’t pay much attention because politics “is so corrupt.”
This group of Americans accounts for a huge portion of the potential electorate. Obama and Joe Biden won about 70 million votes in 2008, while John McCain and Sarah Palin won about 60 million votes. Eighty million eligible Americans sat on the sidelines that year — and that number is expected to be higher this time around.
This survey offers mixed news for Obama: Unlike swing state independents who take up the bulk of the campaign’s attention, many of these potential but unlikely voters don’t need convincing to support the president’s agenda.
Getting them to go to the polls, however, is the challenge. Still, Obama has the upper hand.
Of those who said they would support Obama if they did vote, 85 percent said they would be encouraged to register or even cast a ballot if they knew their vote could help swing a close election. Just 70 percent of those who support Romney said they would turn out to help swing the election in his favor.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, said the campaigns’ tactics might actually be suppressing votes.
“Ironically, both the Obama and Romney campaigns want to tout likely-voter polls showing their respective candidates leading by wide margins,” Paleologos said. But “if these people think you’re going to win anyway, that’s one more reason in a long list of reasons why they’ll stay home in November.”
The nationwide survey polled 800 adults in live telephone interviews between July 30 and Aug. 8. Fifty-two percent said there was a 50-50 chance they would vote in this year’s election and 44 percent said they were not likely to vote. Four percent were undecided.
Of those who said they are registered to vote but unlikely to do so, 44 percent said they voted for Obama in 2008 and 20 percent said they backed McCain.
The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.47 percent.