Those Mysterious Undecided Voters, and Why Obama Should Be Worried About Them

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The real Mr. Met. Photo: Getty Images

After two years of campaigning and nearly $1 billion spent, it might seem incredible that any breathing adult hasn’t made up his or her mind yet about this presidential race. But between 4 and 10 percent of voters remain uncommitted, according to the latest polls. Who are these people? There are the “low-information voters,” under-informed folks who tend to be older, less educated, and rural. Then there are those who are passionate about issues, but have been shaken loose of old voting habits and may be moving to new political affiliations. This time around, the latter group is nearly all white, and could include some suburban Republicans outside the South as well as a few Clinton Democrats. In the coming three weeks, Obama may not make much headway with either set.

Undecideds get a huge amount of attention from politicians, pollsters, and media types, but they rarely determine election results, as Ezra Klein recently pointed out. Of course, candidates can’t take that for granted. (One reason why aspects of each campaign are becoming more emotion-based is that it’s hard to get through to those low-information voters via the issues.) Crucially, though, while the political rule of thumb is that voters who are still undecided by Election Day divide two-to-one in favor of the non-incumbent party — which, obviously, would help Obama — that rule might not apply this time around: Obama may have already skimmed as many voters as he’s likely to get from the undecideds — those getting creamed by the economy who are also culturally or racially resistant to supporting him.

Here's the evidence: The proportion of undecideds in swing states has declined as Obama has polled better over the past three weeks. For instance, in Colorado, Obama edged McCain by an average of 2.3 points in surveys taken throughout September, with an average of 7.2 percent of voters undecided. But this month, Obama has led McCain by an average of 7.3 points in Colorado, with undecideds dropping to an average of 5.7 percent. As a result, a whole series of battleground states have turned into something like 50-46 races. But the trend might not go much further. As undecideds dwindle, sooner or later Obama’s support will bump against the limits of voters like the West Virginia Republican who asked, “Would you rather have a black friend in the White House, or a white enemy?”