Undecided voters hold sway in presidential race

Kansas City StarSeptember 24, 2008 

They've talked issues. They’ve written position papers. They’ve run commercials. They’ve attacked each other.

Now — with six weeks to go — John McCain and Barack Obama face a decisive question from the voters left who haven’t made up their minds:

Which guy do I like?

"Do they believe they can trust them? Do they want to have a beer with them?" said Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who is helping the McCain campaign. "The people who decide on the issues decided a long time ago."

Former Missouri Republican chairman Woody Cozad: "A heck of a lot of people aren’t voting on the issues as much as they are: ‘Is this the guy to do the job?’ "

The way the candidates answer that question is critical because most voters — in a race that’s tied — have made their pick. By most estimates, only one in 10 voters is undecided or movable from one candidate to another.

"If you drill down hard … (these are) people who tend to be more independent and more moderate and who tend to be undecided about a lot of things," said Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com. "They tend to pay less attention to politics."

That fact, consultants said, will make campaign position papers and commercials less important in the last six weeks than the candidates’ reactions to unforeseen events, perceived gaffes, and the presidential debates.

Democrats and Republicans said most voters made up their minds this spring and summer. Now, with the race essentially tied, the election is in the hands of tough-to-reach undecided voters who will pick based on other criteria: age, perhaps, or race; experience, freshness, even confidence.

"It’s going to be just purely on gut," said consultant Jim Bergfalk, a Democrat.

Steve Glorioso, a Democratic operative, said: "It's not like (undecideds) ignore the issues. They factor it in, but in the end it's a gut vote."

Blumenthal: "Both candidates have made a good impression … although (voters are) worried that Obama isn't prepared enough and that McCain doesn’t understand their needs."

Those late misgivings will be moved more by events — such as the Wall Street crisis — than specific positions on issues, both sides said.

Movable voters won't necessarily nitpick each campaign's prescription for fixing the economy, for example, but they will be looking for the appearance of leadership and an understanding of the issue.

That's why McCain’s quickly adjusted statement that the economy's fundamentals are "strong" caused the campaign to stumble: Not because the claim was true or false but because it suggested a lack of understanding of the pressure on family budgets.

"McCain's utterances that things are in pretty good shape just don’t fly at all," said Richard Martin, a Democratic veteran of statewide campaigns in Missouri. Undecided voters want to know, " 'Does he get it? Is he really in touch with me?' "

Republicans said Obama's recent multimillion-dollar fundraising trip to Hollywood — while the economy neared a meltdown — might prompt undecided voters to ask the same question about him.

The upcoming debates may help settle the question.

Bill Lacy — a veteran of presidential campaigns involving Bob Dole and Fred Thompson — said history provided an example.

"We're kind of re-running the 1980 campaign," he said. "Voters decided in 1980 they didn't want four more years of Jimmy Carter. But they weren't sure about Reagan."

The only debate between the two changed that, Lacy said, when Reagan defused suggestions that he was a "nuclear cowboy."

"Then you saw a big, big switch," he said.

Others said the coming debates might serve a similar function.

"They won't be listening to the specifics (in the debates)," Martin said. "They'll be looking for how they fit the part."

Consultants in both parties also said the focus on personalities and personas might explain the volatility in recent polls, especially the bounce after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was added to the Republican ticket.

Voters drawn to Palin, they said, weren't necessarily attracted by her issue positions, although she did help solidify support with conservative voters who had questions about McCain.

Instead, movable voters were excited by Palin's newness on the national scene, her compelling personal story and the fact that she's a woman.

"The attacks on Palin have locked in, 'Hey, she’s somebody like us,’ " Roe said. "There's someone on that ticket they can communicate to."

The bounce appears to have faded as Palin becomes a more familiar figure. A New YorkTimes-CBS poll last week showed the Alaska governor’s favorability ratings were two points higher than opponent Sen. Joe Biden’s — but her unfavorable rating was 13 points higher than Biden’s.

Some consultants and political figures cautioned that issue positions might matter in the next six weeks.

"I think most of the voters that are looking at it and are undecided are concerned about the issues," said Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee, a Democrat who is campaigning for Obama. "The people we talk to … are all concerned about the economy and what’s going to be there for them."

Consultants said many of the undecided voters could simply stay home, upset with both choices. But most expect a near-record voter turnout, meaning millions of undecideds will have made up their minds.

Bergfalk: "This election as much as anything is going to be … about turnout, and who’s organized to produce that turnout."

Read more political coverage from the Kansas City Star at kansascity.com

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