Many factors will shape the outcome of Tuesday’s election. One of them is whether Liz Fretz gets off the fence.
The 50-year-old information-technology consultant lives in Northern Virginia, one of the hardest-fought battlegrounds in the country, and she still hasn’t made up her mind.
“I kind of feel like the current administration hasn’t done enough and has broken promises, but I’m kind of scared of Mitt Romney because he reminds me of every evil business owner I’ve ever met,” Fretz said. “The recovery has taken way too long and been too up and down, but I’m not sure if Romney really has the people at heart.”
The seesawing Fretz represents the sliver of the electorate, probably as tiny as 4 percent, that could be the final tiebreaker in a race that’s been deadlocked for months. Like most other undecided voters, Fretz is a woman who considers herself an independent and pays only sporadic attention to politics. Her disappointment with President Obama’s economic stewardship and uneasiness with Romney on a gut level are common refrains. Whom she and other undecided voters ultimately support — or whether they vote at all — could determine the outcome in states that look particularly close, like Virginia and Colorado, and, more broadly, determine the next occupant of the White House.
The share of the electorate without a favorite candidate has remained fairly stable, despite major events like the nominating conventions and presidential debates. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, for example, found 6 percent undecided when Obama led by 8 points in mid-September before the conventions, 6 percent undecided when Romney was up by 4 points in mid-October after the first debate, and 6 percent undecided in the last week of October. The latest score: 47 percent to 47 percent.
“I think the undecided voters could be extremely important, and their impact could matter beyond the election,” said Republican pollster David Hill. “One of the reasons our politics have become so partisan is because candidates spend so much time playing to their base. There’s not much that pollsters get excited about, but I’m excited about the prospect of independents having their say on Tuesday.”
Other political strategists argue that last-ditch efforts to persuade moderate, undecided voters may be less important than the final push by the campaigns to mobilize their more partisan supporters. “I think the undecideds stay home,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. “At this point, it comes down to intensity and enthusiasm.”
Peter Jones, who like Fretz, lives in closely contested Northern Virginia, is lacking both of those things. The 33-year-old editor said it doesn’t matter who wins the election, and he plans to stay out of it.
“There’s no reason to believe what they say,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much difference in what they would actually do. Both are pretty bad.”
Not only is there debate about whether the remaining undecided voters will show up Tuesday, there is also debate about which way they will break.
In the three last elections in which an incumbent president was seeking reelection, the late deciders favored the challenger, according to data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute.
In 2004, 55 percent of the voters who made up their minds in the last three days voted for John Kerry over President Bush. In 1996, 35 percent of the late deciders favored President Clinton, compared with 40 percent for Republican Bob Dole and 23 percent for independent Ross Perot. Late deciders also favored Democrat Walter Mondale over President Reagan in 1984.
None of these challengers won, so it’s apparent there weren’t enough late deciders to carry them to victory. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at AEI, said the data isn’t sufficient to support a paradigm about voters who make up their minds at the very end. “I know it looks like there’s a pattern, but we don’t have enough information,” she said.
But there’s also what Hill calls the 50 percent rule: An incumbent who is below 50 percent in the polls will lose on Election Day because undecided voters will disproportionately favor the challenger.
“The underpinning of the rule is that everyone thoroughly knows the incumbent, so if they haven’t made a decision yet to vote for reelection, it becomes improbable that they are going to have an 11th-hour epiphany,” Hill said. “There can’t be anyone out there that doesn’t have an opinion about Barack Obama. What new thoughts are you likely to have about him by Tuesday?”