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.
Julia Wrapp, Boulder, Colo.
Occupation: real estate agent and entrepreneur
2008 vote: Obama
Julia Wrapp cares about economic issues and environmental sustainability, and, as an entrepreneur, is concerned about how difficult it has become to start businesses these days.
The Boulder native reads extensively and hears from people on both ends of the political spectrum – she says her father threatens to leave the country if Mr. Obama is reelected, while a close friend goes to Obama rallies. But she has never registered with a political party and considers herself more libertarian than anything.
"I very much believe in personal responsibility," says Ms. Wrapp, who expresses deep concern about the direction of the country. "I think it's the scream in an insane asylum, going over a waterfall," she says. "That's where I think we are."
Over the past few years, Wrapp has spent a lot of time helping her best friend deal with a serious health issue; and as a result, health care looms large for her. But she'd also like to see incentives for people to take care of their health.
A businesswoman, she respects Romney's business acumen but says she isn't sure she trusts him – or most politicians, for that matter, though she respects that they run. She longs for more discussion of ideas and vision, rather than the negative ads and pandering to special interests that she tends to see.
"What I look for most in a president is the ability to lead with integrity and strength of character through these times," Wrapp says. "I wish there were a candidate where I thought, This is easy. But I just have concerns.... I'm very much against big government, and that may end up being the deciding factor in my vote."
Wrapp is neither apathetic nor uninformed – she's just unenthusiastic about the choices. In the end, she says, "I'd vote for Obama because I'm not sure I trust Romney. I'd vote for Romney because I'm not sure Obama can handle the job."
– Amanda Paulson, staff writer
Tricia Halliday, Bedford, N.H.
Occupation: administrative assistant at a college
Personal: married with two daughters
2008 vote: John McCain
Balancing the federal budget is among Tricia Halliday's top priorities, and she's vehemently opposed to abortion.
But basing her vote on one or two hot topics is too narrow an approach for Ms. Halliday, a registered Republican. Making the choice is "really difficult if you're not going to just vote the party line, if you are actually going to make a decision on who would be the best president."
Romney's pick of running mate Paul Ryan "might be a further pull toward the Republican side," says Halliday, who has a degree in finance. "If we don't balance this [federal] budget, we are just not going to survive."
Freedom of religion is important, too. She disagrees with Obama's position that health-care benefits must cover birth control even at religious organizations such as Saint Anselm College, the Roman Catholic institution in Manchester, N.H., where she works.
On the other hand, she likes that Obama cares about insuring people, especially children. She seriously considered voting for him in 2008. One reason Romney gives her pause: "I don't know that I totally believe him. I don't know that he's really trustworthy. He's the flip-flopper, right?"
Obama also sometimes tailors what he says to his audiences, she says. But overall, "he did what he said he would do."
Halliday has had the chance to see both men in person – more than six times each over the years. They're both charismatic, she says, though Obama is more personable.
One item that weighs heavily on her checklist: character – "whether you are going to follow through on your promises and ... have the moral aptitude to stand up for yourself and your convictions," she says.
"I would rather have someone who I have similar beliefs with [on] 75 percent [of the issues], but I have faith in their character, than someone who tells me exactly what I want to hear but I don't have that faith in them."
– Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, staff writer
A.J. Dellinger, Madison, Wis.
Occupation: freelance writer
2008 vote: Bob Barr
No matter. Mr. Dellinger considers himself an independent spirit who believed that supporting a third-party alternative was crucial to eventually righting the spiraling federal deficits and rampant spending that he blames on both Democrats and Republicans.
But that was then. He now sees the value of his vote, especially in Wisconsin, a battleground state in 2012.
"To a certain extent, a third party is almost like a throwaway vote," he says now of his 2008 decision. "I didn't contribute really" to the election outcome.
Dellinger says he knows "a couple of votes can have an impact" on the Wisconsin outcome, so he plans to vote for Obama or Romney. But which one? Neither candidate is the complete package he wants – a fiscally responsible leader who can pull the United States out of economic malaise, but one who isn't "backwards" on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights.
This 22-year-old says, "Social issues have a fairly large impact on my decisionmaking. But I also realize this election should be more focused on economic issues. So ideally you want a candidate who can do it all, but obviously, that's not always on the plate."
Dellinger grew up in Madison with Republican parents who are small-business owners. The year he was born they opened a bait-and-tackle store that they still operate. He says his conservative mind-set was inspired by their political activism, but he also seeks out perspectives on US politics from media far and wide: Russia Times, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Mr. Colbert.
As for Obama and Romney, Dellinger says he wishes he could vote for their former selves: the socially moderate Governor Romney of Massachusetts and the 2008 candidate Obama, who campaigned to end the war in Afghanistan and close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.
"My real dilemma is, voting for the person who represents my views the most but who is most likely going to lose versus voting for a candidate who would most likely win and be closest in line to my views," he says.
– Mark Guarino, staff writer
Kenneth Jackson, Tallahassee, Fla.
Occupation: government clerk, unemployed
Personal: divorced father of four
2008 vote: Obama
With his close-cropped white hair and Eric Jerome Dickey novel tucked under his arm, Kenneth Jackson cuts the profile of an associate professor – a distinct possibility here in Tallahassee, home of Florida State University and Florida A&M University. If that snap impression included "definite Obama voter," that would be close to the truth, but not an actual fact.
A dedicated voter who came of age in the 1970s, Mr. Jackson voted for Obama in 2008 and still considers him a "charismatic," "likable," and "competent" officeholder. His snapshot of Romney? A potential "bamboozler" and corporate apologist who somehow manages to appeal to "poor white people."
Another Obama presidency would seem to fit Jackson's "Star Trek"-inspired view of a diverse, hopeful, and more egalitarian society. But he can't stop wrestling with himself over his vote. With a grimace, he confirms, "I can be persuaded."
An aspiring political scientist, Jackson journeys daily onto conservative websites – and his perusals go beyond intellectual curiosity. He says he is looking to be convinced as to how, exactly, conservative ideas would buoy his personal economy – and how inclusive those policies really are.
Jackson is going on two years of unemployment after losing his job as a state government clerk. He sees his three grown children facing a tough career market. As he tries to decide what to do with the rest of his working life, he says he is seriously considering the GOP ticket. Romney, he notes, has promised to create 12 million jobs in his first four years as president, in contrast to the net slump in total jobs and diminished average family earnings under Obama.
"If I were to vote for Mitt Romney, he'd first have to convince me that he is just as interested in seeing mom and pop business flourish as those who have already gotten to a certain level in society," Jackson says. "He has to dazzle me, and the Republicans need to put forth policies that serve people who want to just live well, not necessarily live big."
Race, he acknowledges, also weighs on his decision. "If I wasn't so melanin-enriched, it might be easier for me to look at the Republican Party and see that they [manage the economy] better than the Democrats."
– Patrik Jonsson, staff writer
Elizabeth Cole, Arlington, Va.
Occupation: administrative assistant at a Washington think tank
2008 vote: John McCain
A McCain voter in 2008, Elizabeth Cole this year leans toward Obama – but only by the slimmest inclination.
The 25-year-old says she isn't a big consumer of political news. She doesn't like to talk politics because the national discussion is often "nasty" – and inside the political pressure cooker of Washington, D.C., the debate is often all heat, no light. Her political leanings don't line up cleanly with either party. She believes government should play a role in helping the neediest, but she's concerned the nation may be overstepping not only what it can afford but also what it should offer.
A former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, Ms. Cole credits Obama with putting a Latina on the US Supreme Court. But she opposes a blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants and emphasizes the need for citizenship to come through established procedures.
She likes parts of Obama's health-care law, such as easy and cheap access to birth control for women, but she fears creating a system like the poorly run government health-care systems in Argentina or Nicaragua.
Cole is in a demographic group that leans hard toward Obama: females ages 18 to 29. And women's issues are her top concern: "I can't stomach some of the conservative positions on abortion rights and issues around birth control." If she chose today, women's issues and support for marriage equality for gay couples would have her voting for the president.
What could pull her toward Romney? It's not so much the economy – she wonders if Romney could turn it around and acknowledges that Obama inherited an economic mess.
Her big question with Romney is whether he can show some spine. In her eyes, Romney's past is full of policy "indecision," as she puts it, citing similarities between his Massachusetts health-care plan and Obama's health-care law, which Romney has promised to repeal.
That leaves Cole wondering: "Could he give me his word?"
– David Grant, staff writer