Who are the “undecided” voters? And what the heck are they waiting for?

October 9, 2012

"Saturday Night Live" has mocked them. Tony Kornheiser has said he "loathes" them. Partisans -- and many political reporters -- wonder just what the heck they are waiting for.

The "they" of course refers to that sliver of people who say they remain undecided in the 2012 presidential race. With four weeks left in the campaign, winning over these voters is a critical last piece of the electoral puzzle for both President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

All of which points to a simple question: Who are these undecideds and what, exactly, do they want to hear that they haven't heard yet from the candidates?

Let's start by defining the universe of who we are talking about when we talk about undecided voters.

The good folks who run the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll have been tracking what they call "up for grabs" voters since April. They define this group as people who are undecided or leaning toward a candidate and who also say they are highly interested in this campaign or have voted in at least one of the last two elections.

From April through July those "up for grabs" voters represented 18 percent of the electorate in the NBC-WSJ polls. Now, they make up just 12 percent.

That figure jibes exactly with Washington Post-ABC polling in late September that showed 12 percent of likely voters were "movable" -- a category that includes the truly undecided but also those who say they lean toward either Obama or Romney but could change their minds.

And it's also in keeping with recent exit polling. In 2004, 11 percent of people said they made their mind up about which candidate to vote for in the final week before the election while in 2008 10 percent said the same.

Who is this "12 percent"? The NBC/WSJ breakdown suggests they tend to be younger (four in ten are 34 years old or younger), moderate (54 percent identified themselves that way), very pessimistic about the direction of the country (64 percent wrong track) and more positive in their views of Obama (45 percent positive) than Romney (20 percent positive).

They are also far less likely to be paying close attention to the election and to be certain to vote than the rest of the electorate. In the Post-ABC September survey, 57 percent of movable voters who said they were backing Obama or Ronney said they were absolutely certain to vote on Election Day as compared to 90 percent of all registered voters who said the same. And, just 28 percent of movable voters in that poll said they were following the presidential race "very closely" as compared to 51 percent of "definite voters" who said the same.

So, in the (in)famous words of Dennis Green, undecided voters are who we thought they were. They tend to be young, low-information voters who see themselves in the ideological middle -- caught between an economy they aren't happy with and an alternative to President Obama that they also aren't thrilled about.

What do undecideds want to hear in these final 28 days that might turn them (finally) to one candidate over the other?  And, is it even worth trying -- giving the not-insignificant chance that they simply don't show up at all?

Opinions vary.

Jan van Lohuizen, who handled polling for President George W. Bush's re-election race in 2004, is firmly on the don't bother side of the equation. "I think they're cave dwellers who are not going to vote," said van Lohuizen. "Often if you're really in doubt or conflicted about what to do, the best thing can be to do nothing at all."

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who does work for the conservative outside group Resurgent Republic, agreed that there are undecideds who simply won't vote but insisted that the number of undecideds who could very well turn out is higher than most polls suggest.  "I'm not buying the argument that 95 percent of the electorate is locked into their choices now," said Ayres. "The quick closing of the polls since the debate reinforces that point."

Even if you agree with Ayres, however, it's tough to know what message works to persuade broad swaths of them. Because so many of these undecideds are low information voters, crafting a message that works is next to impossible.  They could just as well make up their mind based on the last person's ad they saw on TV or what their girlfriend's brother told them as any specific message being directed their way by the microtargeting arms of the two campaigns.

And yet, these are the people who -- if conventional wisdom holds -- will function as the tipping point toward either President Obama or Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.  

In short: Kevin Costner in "Swing Vote" was WAY closer to the 2012 reality than anyone would like to admit.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · October 9, 2012