They make up only a sliver of the electorate, roughly 4 to 7 percent. We’re talking 1 million to 2 million people at the most, in just a handful of critical states. They tend to be younger, female, and clueless about politics.
They are the undecided. Better yet, they could be the deciders—the voters who pick the winner of the presidential election in an increasingly polarized environment. Some polls suggest there are fewer fence-sitters in 2012 than in recent elections, yet this race will see record-setting spending of at least $2.5 billion by the campaigns, national parties, and other political groups.
“When we look back at this election we will probably see that more money in history will have been spent to persuade the fewest number of voters,” said President Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson. “You can’t leave any stone unturned.”
Much of what the campaigns do is geared toward getting the attention of these indifferent and far-flung individuals. Obama and soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney will spend nearly all of their time in less than a dozen states that are truly up for grabs. Their television ads are carefully designed to win over the wishy-washy and the disengaged. Watch Obama calmly appealing to undecided voters in one oft-running ad: "Sometimes politics can seem very small. But the choice you face couldn't be bigger."
Elections, of course, are not just about persuading undecided voters. They also hinge on whether campaigns can turn out the voters who already agree with them. Romney had that in mind when he bypassed the middle of the road—and the preferences of some Republican strategists—to tap as vice president a small-government crusader and hero of the conservative establishment. Democrats are clamoring to pigeonhole Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman who wants to drastically shrink federal spending and overhaul institutions like Medicare, as a right-wing zealot.
If Romney was primarily looking for a running mate who would appeal to independent voters, he would have chosen someone less ideological from his shortlist, like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Here's the calculation: Mitt Romney doesn't need or expect Paul Ryan to convince even one undecided voter to cast their ballot for him. That's not what he's on the ticket for," wrote Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, in a fundraising appeal this week. "He's there to reassure and inspire” the Right.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the strategy of tending to the party faithful is sound. “There’s a shrinking market of undecided voters," said Cardenas, whose group hosts the nation’s largest yearly convention of conservative activists. “Most people are hardened even if they don’t admit it, so there are diminishing returns. You want to make sure the base is energized."
Other prominent Republicans say turnout won’t be a problem in 2012 because the president is so polarizing. “There’re nothing you can do to stop Obama from getting 45 percent and nothing you can to stop Romney from getting 45 percent, so every dime you spend should really about everybody else," said Republican strategist Curt Anderson, who helped orchestrate the national party’s vaunted “72-hour” turnout strategy in 2004.
With most Americans firmly in their corners, only 6 percent of them say there is a good chance they will change their minds before the election, according to a recent poll by The Washington Post and ABC News. During the summer before the 2008 election, about 10 percent were undecided. In 2004, about 12 percent were on the fence.
“It’s kind of like trench warfare in World War I, because significant resources will be expended to advance a very small distance," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, who has worked on several presidential campaigns. “The undecided vote may be smaller than in some recent elections, but this was always going to be a close election, so every decimal point counts."
Paul Begala, who is advising the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, has actually put a number on it. He calculated that the election will be decided by 4 percent of the vote in just six pivotal battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia. Total undecideds: 916,643 people. In an interview with National Journal, Begala said he would also add 4 percent of the electorate in Nevada, which brings the total to 960,514.
In a sign that Begala's sparse estimate may not be far off, a National Journal reporter approached about 15 people on Tuesday morning at a Dunkin' Donuts in Fairfax, Va., before finding a customer who had not settled on a candidate. "I have never really paid attention to be honest," said Kevin Dowling, 27, a personal trainer. "I'm trying to get into it. I listen to both sides and I'm trying to figure out who would be best for me, but it's not easy with all of those attack ads."
So who are these people who can’t make up their minds?
A review of the latest Quinnipiac University polls in six battleground states—Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—shows some common traits. Undecideds are more likely to identify as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. In most of the states, they are slightly more likely to be women, lower-income, and lacking college degrees. In Florida, they are more likely to be Hispanic.
The Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, which has been surveying 1,000 people a week since January, has been digging even deeper into the undecided voter’s mind. The nonpartisan group of more than a dozen universities analyzed a large sample of 10,000 respondents after Romney became the presumptive nominee, of which only 5 percent are undecided. Not surprisingly, they are less informed about politics and more likely to call themselves moderates. But only three in 10 were true independents who denied leaning toward either party, the researchers found. Four in ten said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic, while 23 percent identified more with Republicans.
“The one thing that really surprised me was how partisan they were," said Lynn Vavrek, the project’s co-principal investigator and a University of California (Los Angeles) associate professor of political science and communication studies.
Undecided Democrats were not overly enthusiastic about the president, but 65 percent said they “somewhat disapprove" or weren’t sure, suggesting they could be persuaded. Among the undecided Republicans, 35 percent said they dislike Romney personally. Only 1 percent liked him a lot. Nearly two-thirds said Romney “says what he thinks people want to hear." The difference between the undecided Democrats and Republicans seems to favor Obama, Vavrek said.
“If I had to bet on what those undecided people are going to do, I would say they will fall back to their partisan leanings because partisanship is the No. 1 predictor of voting behavior," she said. “The undecided voters are not that different than other voters. They just make up their minds later."