McManus: Who’s still undecided?
Do you know how you’ll vote in November’s presidential election?
I thought so. For all we’re hearing about the importance of undecided voters, there aren’t many of them left.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, for example, only 2% of voters said they couldn’t predict how they would vote on election day. That’s right: 2%.
Other polls report higher shares of undecided, partly because they don’t press respondents as hard to make a choice, but no one is putting the undecided vote at more than 10%.
That’s not unprecedented in a year when an incumbent president is running for a second term. And if you add potential “swing voters” — people who have made a tentative choice but could still change their minds — the number of votes in play could grow. But it still means that only a small fraction of the electorate is truly undecided.
So who are these people? “The fate of our country is now in the hands of people who don’t think about what they want until they get right up to the register at McDonald’s,” comedian Stephen Colbert quipped recently.
Pollsters and political scientists, predictably, have come up with wonkier answers. Some of those who haven’t committed are simply dissatisfied, they say; they haven’t heard anything they like from either candidate and are unlikely to vote come election day.
Others are disengaged voters — people who don’t pay much attention to political news, or who have been too busy to focus on the campaign until now. (Pollsters say that includes a disproportionate number of women with children, a reason campaigns are constantly vying to appeal to harried “soccer moms” or “Wal-Mart moms.”)
And some, a precious few, are voters who are engaged and paying attention but genuinely torn.
Alec MacPeel, a 60-year-old construction contractor in Cleveland in the swing state of Ohio, falls into the dissatisfied category. “I don’t like either one of them,” MacPeel told me when I caught up with him last week. “I don’t like a lot of the things Obama has done, but I don’t like Romney either.”
But wait, I asked: Doesn’t Mitt Romney’s business-oriented pitch appeal to you as a small businessman? “I don’t think the Bain Capital record was such a good one,” he said, adding that he doesn’t approve of “making your living out of loading companies up with debt and letting them go bankrupt.”
Was there any candidate this year MacPeel might have voted for? “Ron Paul, maybe,” he said, without much conviction. And on election day? “I don’t plan to vote.”
MacPeel shows up in the polls as “undecided.” But a better label might be disaffected and unreachable — not the kind of voter who’s likely to swing an election either way. And that makes the truly undecided voters even more important.
Mary Tate, a 67-year-old retired plywood company worker in Danville, Va., another swing state, is one of the genuinely perplexed. She voted for President Obama in 2008, but this time, she said, “I’m kind of on the fence. I’m leaning a little bit toward Romney, but I’m not positive.”
What’s pushed her away from Obama? “The debt,” she said. “Obama was handed a big mess; you can’t solve a problem that big in just four years. But I don’t like the debt he’s putting on us.”
Still, she’s torn — and worried about Medicare. “I don’t like it that Obama is taking $716 billion from Medicare to pay for what they call Obamacare,” she said. “But I’m worried about the changes that Romney might make. If they make it into — what do you call it, vouchers? — that bothers me.”
How will she vote on election day? “I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “I’m still listening.”
Political scientist Alan
Abramowitz of Emory University has estimated that in 2008, only about one-third of the swing voters who were leaning toward one candidate or another actually switched sides before election day. But of those who did, most “came home” to their own party’s nominee.
That’s one reason the presidential campaign is becoming more vitriolic. Partisan rhetoric doesn’t always drive swing voters away; instead, it can remind them where their loyalties are, and convince them that there’s something they just don’t like about the other side.
So while the final lap of this campaign will focus on “mobilization” — making sure each side’s strongest supporters turn out — it will also be aimed at that dwindling band of undecided and swing voters.
As Vanderbilt political scientist John G. Geer told me: “A billion dollars is chasing 5% of the vote in 20% of the states.”
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus