With polls showing most Americans already committed to President Obama or GOP challenger Mitt Romney, the outcome of this year's tight presidential election hangs in large degree on the remaining slice of undecided voters in, maybe, six or seven battleground states.
That's just shy of 1 million voters, out of some 130 million citizens expected to cast ballots on Nov. 6, analysts say. Lassoing a majority of these swing-state fence-sitters might be "enough to win the presidency," Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney's political director, has said.
Who are these undecideds, and how will they make up their minds about which man should lead the nation for the next four years?
They are not all that different from other voters, insists political scientist Lynn Vavreck at the University of California, Los Angeles, coauthor of the forthcoming book "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election." "They're a tiny bit less partisan, less ideological, and have less intensity" about politics. "They have voted in past elections," she adds, "and most of them have left a clear record of voting for one party or the other."
The Romney and Obama campaigns are expected to spend $2 billion, a lot of it on advertising, to try to sway these "persuadables." In hotly contested states, they will be besieged by such ads; but the ad war is just one likely influence on the undecideds, if interviews with five of them are any indication.
Among the political cognoscenti, such voters are a curious species. They are often seen as detached enigmas who "don't think about what they want until they get right up to the register at McDonald's," as TV satirist Stephen Colbert quipped recently.
But that's too glib. Upon closer inspection, their alliances, sympathies, and musings are found to be personal and complex – and for those in battleground states, their struggles to come to a decision are compounded by a sense that they, more than other voter subgroups, could have a real effect on America's future.