They are more likely to be white than black, female than male, married than single, and live in the suburbs rather than in large cities. They are not frequent churchgoers nor gun enthusiasts. They are clustered in swing states like Ohio, Michigan and here in Pennsylvania. And while they follow the news closely, they are largely indifferent to the back and forth of this year’s race for president.
These are what pollsters describe as the rarest of Americans in this election year: the undecided voters. And with aides to President Bush and Senator John Kerry increasingly confident about their ability to turn out their base voters, and thus create an electoral standoff in as many as 15 states, these people have become the object of intense concern by the campaigns as they try to figure out who these voters are and how to reach them.
Only about 5 percent of the voting public is undecided, about one-third of what is typical at this point in the campaign, according to several recent polls. That figure increases to about 15 percent when pollsters include supporters of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush who say they might change their minds. In addition to those who are torn between the two major-party candidates, and possibly Ralph Nader, there is a sizable number of Americans who are deciding whether to vote at all.
Mary Beth Cahill, Mr. Kerry’s campaign manager, said that if the two parties succeeded at turning out their base vote, as both sides said now appears increasingly likely, “this election looks as though it’s going to come down to these late deciders.”
“We all read the daily polling,” Ms. Cahill said, adding. “You have to try every possible way to reach them.”
Both campaigns are struggling to adjust to this endlessly complicated electoral equation. Ms. Cahill said her campaign believed that one of the most effective ways to reach many of these voters was on radio shows, and had geared its surrogate speaker program to make Kerry advocates available for many radio shows.
The Bush campaign in May produced an advertisement on education featuring Laura Bush, appealing to suburban female voters, and placed it on the Web site of The Philadelphia Inquirer in an effort to reach voters in Philadelphia suburbs like this one.
“You can’t get messages to them just by broadcasting on the major nets,” said Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush strategist, referring to television networks. “Primarily, the way most of them make up their mind is with glimpses here and there that they catch of the president and Kerry.”
And who are they? Undecided voters are likely to be younger, lower-income and less educated than the general electorate, said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.
Obviously, it’s no surprise that the campaigns are looking to persuade undecided voters. And, certainly, the fact that the undecideds tend to be young and uneducated is hardly news. What’s interesting, though, is how few of them there are at this relatively early stage.