You’ve heard about them for months. The press obsesses about them. Political scientists toil to understand them. The campaigns are consumed with trying to win them over. They are undecided voters—and at a time when Americans are being blitzed by 43,000 political ads a day, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, they remain stubbornly impervious to persuasion. Who are these people who hold the country’s fate in their hands? And why can’t they make up their minds?
Campaign professionals think of undecideds as comprising two distinct groups: one whose members follow the news and have still found cause to withhold their support, and another that has yet to tune in and may not until the debates. The first group is “not nearly as partisan as those who’ve already picked a candidate,” says John Brabender, chief strategist in former Senator Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign. “They swing their vote much more often. Many are actually registered as Republican or Democrat but have only a loose connection to their party.”
What they share is a deep sense of frustration. In a Sept. 17 focus group of undecided voters in Fairfax County, Va., conducted by the Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, feelings were almost uniformly negative. Hart went around the room asking participants to describe how they feel about the presidential campaign in a word or phrase. Their answers included: “removed … ambivalent … negative … very negative … cheap slugfest … confused … contentious.” Then he asked them to describe Mitt Romney: “stiff … evasive … uppity … unfriendly.” Obama fared no better: “overly confident … unrealistic … arrogant … hollow.” A.J. Morning, a 41-year-old computer technician from Springfield, Va., summed up the group’s mood when he told Hart that the country is “mired in a bowl of stupid.”
These attitudes reflect the broader findings of political scientists. Among the most comprehensive ongoing studies of undecideds is a YouGov poll for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project that has tracked 1,543 of them since January. According to University of California at Los Angeles professor Lynn Vavreck and Vanderbilt University professor Larry Bartels, who analyzed the results, these voters span the political spectrum but differ from typical Democrats and Republicans in their low regard for their party’s candidate. The analysis showed that only 8 percent of undecided Democrats like Obama a lot, vs. 65 percent of Democrats who’ve made up their minds to vote for him; a brutal 1 percent of undecided Republicans like Romney a lot, while 35 percent say they personally dislike him.
Another hurdle for campaigns is that many undecideds are so-called low-information voters—they have only a dim awareness of what’s actually going on. The YouGov poll found that just 40 percent could identify John Boehner as the Speaker of the House. In Hart’s focus group, one participant wrongly believed that Romney planned to raise the Social Security eligibility age to 75, another that Obama had erred in not visiting New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina (George W. Bush was president at the time).
The other group of undecided voters, those who haven’t tuned in yet, will draw on an even thinner grasp of politics. They tend not to follow current events and thus don’t respond to the normal methods of persuasion. Brabender calls them “unknowings” and says they can’t be reached by advertising on Fox News or MSNBC. “If you’re watching Fox, you already know who you’re voting for,” he says. This group tends to be younger, concentrated in rural and suburban areas, and more apt to watch prime-time network TV than news shows, which means its members are more expensive to reach through ads.
Advances in data mining have helped media strategists understand the habits and preferences of undecideds with uncanny specificity. According to research shared with Bloomberg Businessweek by National Media Research, Planning & Placement, which buys TV ads for campaigns, high-turnout swing voters tend to drive Saabs, drink Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi and Corona Light, listen to adult contemporary music, and watch Turner Classic Movies and The Office.
They also have a special fondness for reality TV. “In 2010 the research pointed to reality and talent competition programs and shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Pawn Stars,” says Will Feltus, the company’s senior vice president. “Comedies are also good for reaching swing voters. Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men work well.”
Combined, these undecided voters represent somewhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of the vote and are hard to reach. Yet the campaigns will certainly feel compelled to try. The closeness of the race and the stability of Romney’s and Obama’s coalitions mean people who can’t make up their minds could well tip the balance. If either campaign can reach them, it won’t need to inspire hope or change—just convince them that its candidate represents the lesser of two evils.