How could voters still be undecided? Try asking them

Plus, why this veteran campaign correspondent is focused on swing-state polls

They may be the most publicly maligned minority group in America, a subset of the electorate that is ridiculed with impunity by everyone from TV pundits to online columnists. I am referring, of course, to the people who are the butt of the Polish jokes of this campaign cycle—undecided voters.

In late September, Saturday Night Live established the template with a mock TV ad that portrayed these vacillating voters as boobs craving such vital pieces of information as, “Who is the president right now? And is he or she running?” MSNBC host Chris Matthews (a fellow alumnus of the Jimmy Carter White House) derided these weather-vane Americans, saying, “You’ve got to be a bonehead not to be able to decide. It’s so easy.” Even my old friend Jim Fallows, in his Atlantic blog, expressed incredulity that anyone was still on the fence: “I still don’t know who our nation’s ‘undecided’ voters can be. What more are they waiting to find out?”

The undecideds are easy to caricature since little information about them, other than their lack of candidate allegiance, is available in media polls. (They represent too small a slice of the electorate for reliable micro-analysis). The closest thing to a nuanced portrait of them was provided by political scientists Larry Bartels and Lynn Vavreck, who combined a series of weekly polls to obtain a statistically valid sample in a post for the NYT’s “Campaign Stops” blog. According to Bartels and Vavreck, these voters (who, for the most part, are not news junkies) are more likely to be disappointed partisans than truly unaligned independents.

Little of the subtlety of this academic analysis has percolated through the pundit pack. And while Bartels and Vavreck’s conclusions may also be a bit out of date—they based their polling analysis on surveys conducted from May to July—the real problem is not dated data, but a failure of journalistic empathy. In a knife-edge campaign with spending levels that even Daddy Warbucks might envy and all reporters on hair-trigger alert, it seems unfathomable to DC columnists and denizens of TV green rooms that anyone could still be fence-sitting.

That’s where something called reporting comes in. Talking to actual undecided voters is one of the major reasons why campaign travel is broadening. And they are not hard to locate. Just plunk yourself down in a swing-state cafĂ©, or go door-to-door canvassing with a presidential campaign as it seeks persuadable voters. Trust me, these yes-but-on-the-other-hand Americans are not an endangered electoral species.

And yes, some of these voters can come across as flickering flashlight bulbs. Canvassing last Saturday with an Obama volunteer in Urbandale, Iowa, I met a college junior named Mary who answered the door wearing a hot pink “Homecoming” sweatshirt and short shorts. Asked about her voting plans, she said vaguely, “I’m not sure. I’m not well enough informed.” She added that she was “a college student” in a tone that suggested that her life status meant that she was only required to know enough to pass her midterms and attend fraternity parties.

But I also had long conversations with knowledgeable undecided voters whose reasoning struck me as valid based on their political perspective. (Journalistic confession: I am double-dipping here, since I quoted portions of these interviews in columns for Yahoo News).

Curt Brass, a 39-year-old Iowa police officer who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine, is my emblematic undecided voter. During a morning conversation over coffee in Newton, Brass talked about his distaste for partisan excess in Washington. “It seemed like in the 1980s and 1990s, politics was from nine-to-five,” he said. “And then it was, ‘Hey, do you want to have a drink? Do you want to have dinner?’” (Ironically, Brass seemed to be channeling none other than Chris Matthews, who frequently talks about the after-hours friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill).

Brass, a disappointed Barack Obama 2008 voter, is troubled by his feeling that both candidates—though particularly Mitt Romney—“are willing to compromise their morals to get ahead.” My point is not that Brass is automatically right or that his final decision will somehow decide the election, although Iowa remains close. Rather, it is that real voters often defy cartoonish stereotypes; Brass does not hold the right-wing sentiments somehow expected from a Marine who became a cop.

I am pretty certain that most of the undecided voters I interviewed (like Mike, an Iowa family-practice physician troubled by low Medicare reimbursement rates) could make a voting decision right now if they had to. But bulletin to the press and the pollsters: These voters don’t have to make up their minds under November 6. Nothing in the Constitution requires them to adhere to an artificial schedule dictated by journalistic impatience.

It’s not just the press pack. In early voting states like Iowa, both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been relentless in their efforts to harvest a vote-by-mail bounty before the first pitch of the World Series. After seeing this electoral arm-twisting in action, I would love to read some well-reported stories on whether early balloting short-changes voter reflection. I also wonder if it encourages unreflective partisanship in voting for down-ballot races like state legislative elections, since external clues such as newspaper endorsements and candidate debates often come late in the electoral cycle.

Most Americans, of course, are not being bludgeoned into voting early by door-to-door canvassers with the zeal of old-time encyclopedia peddlers. In fact, rarely have so many voters been consigned to the sidelines of a campaign based solely on the states where they reside. The narrow geographic focus of this presidential campaign is unprecedented, with only Wisconsin being added to the map of hotly contested political turf since the summer. (Of course, not being subjected to the barrage of presidential campaign ads that you face in markets like Cedar Rapids or Cincinnati has its aesthetic benefits.)

Reporting trips to bellwether states like Iowa and Ohio haven’t only given me a chance to talk to undecided voters—they’ve also convinced me that the only polls that matter are swing-state surveys. From the television ad barrage to the intense canvassing efforts, voters in battleground states are witnessing a different presidential campaign than the rest of America. In Iowa, campaign insiders working for both Obama and Romney told me that their internal voter-identification systems are infinitely more sophisticated than a lowly political reporter could possibly imagine. (That, by the way, fits the thesis of Victory Lab author Sasha Issenberg, which I discussed in a recent CJR column.)

Statistical gurus and armchair pundits may obsess over the cosmic meaning of the fluctuations in the Gallup tracking poll numbers. But I’m convinced that the polling divide that matters is one that tracks an underlying reality: this is an election about the Two Americas (Hat tip: John Edwards, c. 2004). The Two Americas are the scores of states that both campaigns are taking for granted, and those seven or eight others that will pick a president. That’s why I am swearing off all national polls until November 6.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.