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Undecided Voters Are Crucial in Presidential Election

October 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The campaigns have focused most of their attention and resources on those battleground states, where four years ago the margin of victory for George Bush or Al Gore was less than 5 percent.

Those same states appear so close this year that their undecided voters could tip the balance. Another sign of how important they are, uncommitted voters will be asking the questions at tomorrow night’s second presidential debate.

Who are these undecided voters? For some answers, we turn to three political reporters in battleground states. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, Tom Fielder of the Miami Herald, and Sharon Schmickle of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Welcome to you all. Tom Fielder, let’s start with Florida. Who are the undecided voters and how big a pool are they at this point?

TOM FIELDER: It’s probably easier to predict the pool that it is to give a precise profile. The most recent polling that we have in the last couple of days still puts the undecided number at about 4 percent; that would be, assuming they turn out to vote, that would be about 50,000 people spread across the state of 17 million with an electorate of about ten million; who they are, again, if you look very closely at those who are committed to voting, they tend to be people who have a history of voting.

They tend to be better educated. They tend to have a higher income, and they are, as best we can tell, very torn on the issue of whether the most significant issue in this election is to protect the country against terrorism or whether it was a mistake to go into Iraq. It’s almost… you can watch this waver back and forth.

MARGARET WARNER: David Yepsen, give us the same analysis of the undecided vote in Iowa.

DAVID YEPSEN: I think it looks a lot the same way as it does in Florida with one addition. I think there are some undecided voters who are really not tuned in. For lack of a better term, they’re disengaged.

These are people who will tell a pollster they’ll vote because that’s what they’re expected to say, but in the final analysis, they may not. They tend to be lower income, less well educated. Some of them are single women. And so these are people who are on the margins of the political game, but I agree with Tom that there are a group of people who are almost the mirror image of that who are folks who are, they like what President Bush has to say about the war on terrorism, and they like what Sen. Kerry is having to say about the economy and health care.

Those two issues are at parity, so I really do think there are a small number of people in the state genuinely trying to sort out who they want to support.

MARGARET WARNER: And still conflicted?

DAVID YEPSEN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Sharon Schmickle, what about in Minnesota? Again is it a similar profile, is there anything special there about the undecideds?

SHARON SCHMICKLE: It is a similar profile here. About 6 percent of the voters are undecided according to a recent Minnesota poll. And of that group, I think that that group might be… the group might actually be quite a lot larger because we’re finding that the… there’s a squishy middle.

One in five voters tell us that they’re persuadable. And they’re a very difficult group to describe demographically because they cut across all the age segments. Their issues tend to be similar to the decideds. In Minnesota, that means they care about the economy, terrorism and the war in Iraq.

There is some indication that President Bush gained some ground in Minnesota during the summer by suggesting that Sen. Kerry would waffle and that he would be tougher in protecting the nation, and that’s reflected in polls here, but the debate may have changed some of that, as well.

I believe you talked to undecideds after the first debate who said that they… Kerry didn’t seem as much of a waffler and they’re a little concerned the president didn’t cooperate more with the United Nations in the war. So they’re very difficult to read.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Fielder, go to that subject about what these… if these voters are essentially concerned with the same issues everyone is, what are they still waiting to hear, and do you have any… do you all have any polling that tells you weather last Thursday night’s presidential debate helped move any of them?

TOM FIELDER: Right. Well, we have some trend lines. I think the same thing had happened here as had happened in Minnesota and actually across the country, that last… early in the summer, June and July, the race in Florida was just about dead even, and then we went into August and about the time that some of the polls were showing that President Bush seemed to be opening a lead, we ended up being hit with four hurricanes and a tropical storm, and that I think threw a lot of the polling into doubt. But those polls that were done did show, and I think it made sense, that President Bush actually increased that lead possibly almost into double digits.

I say it makes sense because it gave President Bush an opportunity to come into the state using all the symbols of the presidency, also providing aid, and it showed a side of him that I think is a good side, it’s the humanitarian side other than the war president. So it made sense to me that he would have opened up a lead.

But last Thursday night what… apparently what we saw was the significant rethinking of that by maybe the squishy middle that was mentioned, and just this latest poll which was published today in the Herald shows that the race is just about back to dead even. So I think people have begun to refocus now on the issues that bother them, which Iraq, terrorism and the economy.

MARGARET WARNER: David Yepsen in Iowa, give us the same analysis of whether last Thursday night’s debate spoke to any of these undecideds, just based on the polling.

DAVID YEPSEN: It did. No question about it. President Bush had a bad night, Sen. Kerry had a good night. Things are not going well for President Bush in this campaign. The whole situation in Iraq, $50 a barrel oil, the stock market dropping.

These aren’t particularly these last few days have not been the greatest for the president. You can see that in some of these polls. President Bush had opened a bit of a lead. He had John Kerry down. It’s now tightened up. The last survey in this state had 48 percent for Kerry and 47 percent for Bush with four or five undecided and a 4 percent margin of error. That’s a statistical dead heat.

I think in the… it’s way too early yet to predict because there is a lot of this softness, not only with undecideds, but if you tend persuadable, the voters leaning one way or another but still want to see the rest of the debates, they have an open mind about this campaign, there is a lot to go.

In the final analysis, I think this state probably leans a little bit to John Kerry, Margaret, because in the last four years, Republican registrations as of Oct.1 in this state had increased by about 1 percent. Democratic registrations have increased about 4 percent. So I think the Democrats are doing much better in the ground game here of trying to turn out their people.

MARGARET WARNER: Sharon Schmickle, that gets us to the turnout question. What indications are there in Minnesota of whether the turnout will be greater, is administration higher, any indications?

SHARON SCHMICKLE: Oh, we expect a very large turnout in Minnesota. The registration is up. In fact, there was a bit of a flap last week because there was some concern that the secretary of state’s office was running out of voter registration cards.

It turns out that that wasn’t true, and registration continues apace. We see many groups on the ground pursuing voter registration. We’ve had concerts in Minnesota for voter registration. We’ve had all kinds of events going on, and I think we can see expect to see a big turnout. But I will say one thing about the findings in the polls.

There’s a lot of variation in the findings in the polls in Minnesota — all the way from having it be a dead heat to having Kerry lead by 9 percent. That variation is coming by different measures of who is likely to vote. And so registering is one thing. True turnout is another. I think we won’t know the answer to that until election night.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Fielder, I know it’s probably impossible to know whether new registrants are undecideds, though I know it’s… partisan organizations are doing a lot of the turnout work.

But what’s your sense of how much bigger the turnout may be, what the new administration is and what that tells us about the undecideds’ influence?

TOM FIELDER: I think it’s going to be significantly larger. We have registered one million, a little over one million new vote centers Florida since 2000. The Democrats and the Republicans are running just about neck and neck, which I think is remarkable given that this is a state that is led by a Republican governor, the president’s brother, and with a Republican administration in the White House; for the Democrats to have done that I think is noteworthy.

Also, a lot of this administration is coming from minorities. It’s coming from Puerto Rican voters in central Florida who have already begun to change the political leanings of central Florida, a key area in the state, and African American voters. So I agree with Sharon that I think turnout on Election Day is going to be critical here.

The problem is a lot of these new voters don’t have experience in voting, in other words, of voting history, so they get screened out of a lot of the polling. So we don’t know whether the polls are under counting them and therefore that would lean toward Kerry, or whether on Election Day everybody will feel fairly comfortable and drift back into historic patterns. It really is at this point a real crapshoot.

MARGARET WARNER: I know this pattern we hope won’t be repeated. But Tom Fiedler, David Yepsen, and Sharon Schmickle, thank you all.

TOM FIELDER: You’re welcome, enjoyed it.

DAVID YEPSEN: Thank you.

SHARON SCHMICKLE: Thank.