Battle for the critical few
With six days to go, the coveted 'persuadables' are still thinking.
"Neither party has me."Skip to next paragraph
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That assertion from Jay Beatty, a 30-something institutional-bonds salesman in St. Petersburg, Fla., sums up the view of a small but crucial slice of the electorate: the undecided.
And it's not that Mr. Beatty hasn't thought about the election, now less than a week away. It's that he looks at President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry and sees a mix of good and not so good. On domestic policy, he's with Senator Kerry, but on international, he's with the president. Then there are personal qualities.
"The debates pushed me one way; I think that Bush is more believable," says Beatty, a registered independent whose wife is expecting their first child. "I think Kerry is a smarter man, but smarter is not necessarily the best politically."
For the campaigns, figuring out how to snag uncommitted battleground-state voters like Jay Beatty represents the Holy Grail of another nail-biter election. Pollsters are finding there's no one easy-to-define group to pursue. Typically, women decide later than men, and nationally, that's the case this year, but only slightly. In Colorado, another battleground, there are more male undecideds than female, says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
The polls don't even agree on how many undecideds and "persuadables" there are in the country. One recent Gallup Poll found so few undecided voters that the number rounded down to zero. The Pew Research Center, which doesn't push its respondents as hard as others to state a preference, puts the figure at 9 percent undecided and another 11 percent as open to switching.
But pollsters agree there's no silver- bullet issue that will bring those final voters home. And they're not even sure if the historical precedent - that people who decide late tend to vote against the incumbent - will hold this time, because of a possible new post-9/11 dynamic that could make voters, ultimately, fear a change of leadership.
In Florida, the undecideds are "all over the place" when it comes to determining the most important issue, says independent pollster Del Ali. "For example, Iraq's important to them, the economy is important to them, so is homeland security," says Mr. Ali. "It's a mixed bag. That's what really makes this thing mind-boggling."
Among the decided, Kerry voters tend to be more issues-oriented, while Bush voters more often cite personal qualities, such as leadership and likability. A Pew poll last week found that among swing voters, the flip-flopper charge against Kerry is more damaging than calling him a liberal. Two major charges against Bush - that he misled the public on Iraq and favors the rich - are "equally troubling to swing voters," reports Pew.
As the final days count down, some busy voters like Lori Mulvihill, of suburban Pittsburgh, know they can't put off their decision much longer. A mother of two who teaches part-time while getting a master's degree in education, she's even thought about not voting.
"I feel guilty, I'm not as informed as I should be," she says. "But yes, I will vote." There's too much at stake: the war, homeland security (especially with family in New York), and schools. "No Child Left Behind is a total mess," she says, eventually concluding that her "voting issue" will be education.