They make up only a sliver of the electorate, roughly 4 to 7 percent. We’re talking 1 million to 2 million people at most, in just a handful of critical states. They tend to be younger, female, and clueless about politics.
They are the undecideds. 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 this year 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.
“More money in history will have been spent to persuade the fewest number of voters,” said President Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson.
Obama and Mitt Romney will spend nearly all of their time down the stretch in fewer 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 a small-government crusader and hero of the conservative establishment as vice president. Democrats have been trying to pigeonhole Rep. Paul Ryan as a right-wing zealot ever since.
“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,” Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in a fundraising appeal. “He’s there to reassure and inspire” the Right.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said that the strategy of tending to the party faithful is sound. “There’s a shrinking market of undecided voters,” he said. “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 that turnout won’t be a problem in 2012 because the president is so polarizing. “There’s nothing you can do to stop Obama from getting 45 percent, and nothing you can do to stop Romney from getting 45 percent, so every dime you spend should really be about everybody else,” said Republican strategist Curt Anderson, who helped orchestrate the national party’s vaunted “72-hour” turnout strategy in 2004.
Only 6 percent of Americans say there is a good chance they will change their minds before the election, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. That’s down from 10 percent at this point in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004.
Paul Begala, who is advising the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, calculates that just 4 percent of voters in six pivotal battleground states will decide the election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia. Total undecideds: 916,643 people. In an interview with Convention Daily, Begala added 4 percent of Nevada’s electorate, which brings the total to 960,514.
So who are these people who can’t make up their minds? A review of the latest Quinnipiac University polls in six battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—reveals some common traits. Undecideds are more likely to identify as independents. In most states, they are slightly more likely to be women, lower-income, and lacking college degrees. In Florida, they are more likely to
The Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, which has been surveying 1,000 people a week since January, has been digging even deeper. The nonpartisan group of more than a dozen universities analyzed a large sample of 10,000 respondents after Romney became the presumptive GOP nominee; only 5 percent of that number said they were 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 10 said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic, while 23 percent identified more with the Republican Party.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.