Swing Voters Slow to Decide, Still Cross-Pressured

Summary of Findings: Swing Voters Slow to Decide, Still Cross-Pressured (Pew Center)

With less than a week to go before the election, many swing voters have yet to commit to a candidate, but over the past month there has been some movement among this group toward Sen. John Kerry. A Pew Research Center follow-up survey with 519 swing voters ­ who in September were undecided or said they could change their vote ­ finds that about half (52%) have moved off the fence, while nearly as many (48%) still are not certain of how they will vote.

Overall, Kerry has made more substantial gains among these swing voters in the past month than has Bush. Today, 40% say they are either certain to vote for Kerry or are leaning toward him (up from just 28% who leaned in Kerry’s direction a month ago). Bush’s support among this group of swing voters stands at 38%, up only slightly from 34% in September. Those who have decided on their vote in the past month mention the debates as a crucial factor in their decision more than any other events or issues, especially those who have committed to Kerry (45% among those who cited a reason). The remaining swing voters identified in the call-back survey are a diverse group, but they take common positions on several issues. About three-quarters (76%) say they agree with Bush on some important issues and with Kerry on others. Consequently, a 45% plurality believes that either Bush or Kerry would make a good president. As expected, most uncommitted voters (78%) say it has been hard to decide whom to vote for.

Obviously. I still maintain that anyone who honestly doesn’t know whether they prefer Bush or Kerry at this point is highly unlikely to vote and is too stupid to vote. Further, I believe the overwhelming number of so-called undecided voters know damned well who they prefer.

Committed voters who have made up their minds since September largely agree that it is a difficult choice and that both candidates have some strong issues. And more of those who recently committed to Kerry say the decision has been a hard one (61%) than those who committed to Bush (38%). However, the recently decided supporters of both candidates have come to the view that only one candidate would make a good president. More than six-in-ten newly committed voters (63%) disagree with the idea that either Bush or Kerry would make a good president.

The poll, which called back respondents initially interviewed Sept. 8-26, finds that even at this late stage in the campaign, half of remaining swing voters say they do not know enough about Bush and Kerry. That compares with about a third of those who have committed to a candidate since September (34%). Moreover, only about half of the remaining swing voters (53%) believe it really matters who wins the election, compared with 71% of recently decided voters.

For months, a defining characteristic of swing voters has been that, unlike committed voters, they have favorable opinions of both candidates. That generally remains the case even for swing voters who have recently made up their minds; 56% have a positive view of Kerry, while 47% have a favorable opinion of Bush. The remaining swing voters also have generally favorable impressions of both candidates. But much smaller percentages express unfavorable opinions of Bush and Kerry, suggesting that remaining swing voters still do not have clearly defined impressions of the two men.

Still, the events of the past four weeks did more to polish Kerry’s image than Bush’s among those who were uncommitted in September. Of the swing voters who expressed an unfavorable view of Kerry then, most (58%) continue to express a negative opinion of him, but nearly four-in-ten (38%) now have a favorable opinion of Kerry. By contrast, there has been less movement among those who held an unfavorable opinion of Bush; just 13% have changed their minds and now have a positive opinion of Bush. Both candidates are now viewed negatively by some who liked them last month, but the shift has been about the same for each candidate (21% for Kerry, 24% for Bush).

The direction here is rather unsurprising. Bush has been a known quantity for years now whereas Kerry has been off the radar screen for all but the most engaged non-Massachusetts residents. While Bush’s performance in the first debate was godawful, most people had very low expectations of his oratorical skills going in. Kerry had much more to gain, as he merely had to demonstrate that he wasn’t a raving loonatic who couldn’t be trusted with command of the military.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.