Poll after poll shows President Bush leading Democratic Sen. John Kerry, but the remaining few percentage points of undecided voters are a cause of concern for Republican campaign officials.
In the closing days of the election season, analysts say, voters who tell pollsters that they’re still undecided ultimately vote for the challenger, often by a large margin. With most polls still showing Mr. Bush below the 50-percent mark — the magic number campaign officials consider a reliable portent of victory — the anti-incumbent trend among undecided voters is seen as a key advantage for Mr. Kerry.
“I can’t think of a time [undecided voters] broke disproportionately for the incumbent,” said Gallup Poll Managing Editor David Moore.
The habits of undecided voters offer both good news and bad news for the Bush camp.
On the one hand, pollsters say, undecided voters usually go against an incumbent when they have a negative opinion of the economy, as surveys now show a majority of likely voters do. On the other hand, undecided voters tend to support the incumbent when the country is at war and the economy is not the big issue.
“That’s what makes this election tricky — both the war and the economy are the major issues,” said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.
That suggests that the undecided vote could split evenly or even break slightly in Mr. Bush’s favor, Mrs. Conway said.
One recent study of “persuadable” voters — not only the undecided, but also those with a weak commitment to their candidate — found that their concerns aren’t strongly connected to their views of the candidates.
Although these voters are “grumpy about the state of the world and their own situation and convinced the war in Iraq was a bad idea, they don’t translate this negativism to Bush and Kerry,” said Adam Clymer, political director for the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey.
“The persuadables go 53 [percent] favorable, 28 percent unfavorable for Bush and 43 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable for Kerry,” he said.
Pollsters can’t seem to agree on the number of hard-core undecideds at this point in the race. The latest Gallup poll has them down to about 1 or 2 percent of likely voters, or about 2 million of the 100 million Americans who voted in 2000. Mrs. Conway’s latest poll has the undecided vote at 6 percent.
Pollsters are scratching their heads over why they differ on the proportion of undecideds.
“I am not sure that anyone knows exactly,” Mr. Moore said. “I know Gallup interviewers press undecided respondents to say which way they lean. So, we typically have fewer undecideds than other polling organizations.”
Democratic pollster Jeff Pollack figures the proportion of undecided likely voters in the battleground states is 5 percent to 8 percent.
Whichever way the undecideds break, pollsters agree, it’ll be late in the campaign. In the 2000 exit polls, 26 percent of actual voters surveyed said they had made up their minds in the last five days.
To help persuade such voters, the Bush and Kerry campaigns will target them with hard-hitting television advertising, because polls show that undecideds are most influenced by last-minute ads, rumors and revelations.
Pollsters wonder why, in a nation where more voters than ever made up their minds very early, there are any undecided voters this late in the game.
“Who knows at this point?” Mr. Pollack said. “But mostly, they are low-information voters, so they need more information to decide.”
Breaking down the demographics of indecision, Mr. Clymer said “persuadable” voters “are slightly less educated, slightly lower income, a bit less likely to go to church, much more likely to call themselves moderate and much less likely to say they are conservatives than those who have made up their minds.”
There also is the sex factor.
“Undecided voters are disproportionately female, up to 60 percent,” said Mrs. Conway, whose polling over the years finds women to be “late-in-the-game” deciders, who might be “very much moved by an 11th-hour terrorist attack,” such as occurred in Madrid on March 11 before the Spanish elections.