The key to this election, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, is the undecided voter. Especially the undecided voter in a swing state. A major newspaper made this point over the weekend with exemplary caution, in an article noting that millions of people will be watching the debate Tuesday night. “Yet for all those millions, officials in both campaigns say Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore will focus their messages on the narrow swath of swing voters who are expected to decide the election.”
A swing voter is defined by experts as one who could go either way. Such voters, these experts continue, tend to be undecided in the sense that they haven’t yet made up their minds. Longtime observers of the political system say that campaign officials tend to concentrate their powers of persuasion on voters whose minds are still open. Experience has shown that these are most often the voters who are undecided and therefore most likely to swing, these observers observe. One rarely acknowledged benefit of our current campaign-finance system, other experts note, is that it enables political campaigns to hire officials smart enough to figure this out.
But what of the alleged expectation, attributed to these campaign officials, that undecided voters will decide next month’s election? According to authorities in the field of undecided votership, this expectation may be based on a school of thought discussed at length in the scholarly literature. This literature looks at the non-undecided voter—that is, voters who have already decided how they are going to vote. The central insight, sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, is that people who are not undecided most likely have already made up their minds. Therefore, the reasoning goes, their decision was made in the past. As such, it is unlikely to change the result in the future. (Unless, Einstein added, a voter is traveling faster than the speed of light. But even in this highly unlikely situation, he noted, the voter probably filed an absentee ballot.)
As another article in a major newspaper reported last month, “The push and pull over these swing voters is particularly intense and of utmost consequence this year because both sides acknowledge that the electoral dynamic has changed considerably.” In layperson’s terms, it has become a “tight race,” defined as one in which either of the two leading candidates has a plausible chance to win. Under such an electoral dynamic, experts say, campaign officials have an even greater incentive to focus their efforts on voters who haven’t yet chosen their preferred candidate. “If the result is a foregone conclusion,” explains a senior strategist who has served in many presidential campaigns, “you might choose to spend your money on voters who have already made up their minds. But if the election is up for grabs, any campaign official worth his or her salt will zero in where it will have the most impact, and that is on voters who are still undecided.” Not to do so would be a mistake “of utmost consequence,” this official added.
To be sure, undecided-votership scholars concede, decided voters do sometimes decide the election result. This happens in what experts describe as two very different circumstances. In the first scenario, a majority has already decided in favor of one candidate or the other. In that case, many scholars believe, the strategy of concentrating on the undecided voter may not be effective. But neither will any other strategy, some of these scholars caution.
In the second scenario, voters who normally would fall outside the category of undecided—most often because they have decided—nevertheless change their minds. But experts consider this an exception that proves the rule. “These people may think they’ve decided, but we would describe them as classic undecided voters,” asserts the dean of a leading undecided-voter studies center.
The Electoral College system adds yet another wrinkle to this complex strategic analysis. Many experts believe that a political campaign should concentrate on states where the election result is still undetermined. Those are the states, many believe, that can have the most dramatic effect on the election results—even to the point of causing one candidate to win, rather than the other one.
“The thing to do,” one veteran political strategist summarizes, “is to aim all your guns at swing voters in swing states. That is how you get the most bang for the buck. In my early days I used to pour resources into states we were either sure to lose or sure to win. But I’ve found through bitter experience that if a state can go either way, it tends to be a better investment. And if, within those states, you go after voters who haven’t made up their minds, you’re going to get the biggest payoff,” this strategist added.
To be sure, the importance of the undecided voter can be exaggerated, some analysts point out. In the end, many longtime political observers believe, every election is decided by voters who have already decided. “We don’t want you to dither past Election Day,” joked one campaign official, adding seriously that voters who don’t vote tend to have a smaller effect on the ultimate result than those who do.
But for this official and others of both parties, the ultimate wisdom of going after the undecided voter is, on balance, fairly clear—if only in contrast to the altenative. Concentrating on voters who have already decided how to vote is unlikely to change the total number of people who vote for you, according to political scientists at many universities. And, say these experts, getting more people to vote for you is of utmost consequence to winning elections.