Undecideds: the few and the hunted

jtarica@thetribunenews.comSeptember 15, 2012 

Who are this year’s undecided voters and why haven’t they made up their minds yet?

Those were the questions I posed in last week’s highly unscientific exercise, and it seems the answers may be as simple as they seemed.

If my small sample is any evidence, either the great majority of people actually aren’t undecided and have made up their minds or they’re just playing coy and chose not to answer.

Of the handful of responses I did receive, the predominant theme suggested voters are truly waiting to gather all the facts before making a final choice.

Their reasoning reflected the outlook of moderate folks who hang in the middle looking for enough justification to pick a side.

Said Barry Rands of San Luis Obispo, a registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000 and Obama in 2008: “I am one of those voters who does not always vote the party line. … This year, I think the major issue for me is what you describe so well as the ‘polarized political landscape.’ It is frustrating efforts to get us back on track. I will be looking for the candidate who has the willingness, ability and experience to work on both sides of the aisle.”

Rands is waiting for the debates to provide a clearer understanding of his choices.

Jim Schwartz, also of San Luis Obispo, had a similar outlook:

“As an informed, independent undecided voter, I have three reasons to be this way, seven weeks before the election: 1. It’s seven weeks before the election! Why decide before all the facts are in? 2. There are four debates coming; let’s see what happens in them. 3. California is already in the ‘decided’ column; again, no rush to either add another vote for the president or make a ‘protest’ vote for his opponent.”

Obviously, these two represent only a segment of the potential undecided population, and surely there are others who are just now starting to pay attention or who are well-informed but unsatisfied to the point they may not vote at all.

Whatever their motivations, however, uncommitted voters appear to be a sparsely populated group.

Coincidentally, Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus addressed this same question in an op-ed piece this past week. And he came to the same conclusion: “For all we’re hearing about the importance of undecided voters, there aren’t many of them left.”

McManus pointed to an ABC News/Washington Post poll last week that found only 2 percent of respondents unable to say how they would vote on Election Day.

While that may be on the extreme end, he said, no surveys found this group at any larger share than 10 percent.

Despite that reality, the dollars and headlines continue to pursue this dwindling herd in the hopes that swaying enough of them might make the critical difference in the right place.

McManus talked to a political scientist from Vanderbilt University, John G. Geer, who distilled it well: “A billion dollars is chasing 5 percent of the vote in 20 percent of the states.”

That’s a whole lot of money for such a small portion of the electorate, but I guess they have to spend it somehow, what with both sides topping $110 million in August fundraising.

In the meantime, these voters will continue to wait and watch, looking for tidbits of new information that will help frame a portrait of the candidates. Eventually they’ll make a choice, and we’ll see, come Nov. 6, whether it makes a difference or not.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com.

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