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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Endgame More About Turnout Than Undecideds

Ezra Klein’s L.A. Times op-ed provides a sobering assessment of the importance of ‘undecided’ voters two dozen days before the election. Klein, an associate editor of The American Prospect, begins by noting the media attention now being lavished on undecided voters:

It was the Undecided Voter whom Gallup asked to submit the questions. It was the Undecided Voter who filled the audience. It was the Undecided Voter who turned the dials controlling CBS’ squiggly reaction lines and recorded his (or her) responses for CBS’ postelection survey…Undecided voters are believed to be the decisive slice of the American electorate, so they get the debates and the ads and the focus groups (assuming, that is, that they live in a battleground state).

But if Klein is right, the smarter strategists of both campaigns are going along for the ride, but not taking the undecideds too seriously, because

…There are no solid numbers on undecided voters — in part because the numbers change with every election and, within every election, with every successive month and event and every poll…Worse, many of those who claim to be undecided are not. Some don’t want to admit their preference. In their paper, “Swing Voters? Hah!” political scientists Adam Clymer and Ken Winneg amassed substantial data suggesting that very few undecided voters are truly indecisive. Examining the 2004 election, Clymer and Winneg found that even the most hard-core of undecided voters were fairly predictable.
They asked the 4% of their sample that claimed to be undecided to rate the two candidates in early October. When they went back to the same people after the election, more than 80% had in fact voted for whichever candidate they’d rated most highly a month earlier.

Klein also cites a study of nine presidential elections by SUNY Buffalo political scientist James Campbell, who concluded “In only one of the nine elections, the 1976 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, did the swing vote majority override an opposite majority among non-swing voters.” To which Klein adds, “in other words, in eight of the last nine elections, the winner could have lost swing voters but won the race.”
Klein also notes that between 5 and 12 percent of voters fit into the ‘undecided’ category in Gallup, Hotline and Rasmussen tracking polls. So just doing a ballpark extrapolation, maybe 2 percent of voters are genuinely undecided. With the stark choice between candidates and the economy going seriously south, there is every reason to expect that they will break more for Obama than McCain.
With 24 days to go, it appears that the battle for hearts and minds is pretty much over. For Dems, it’s all about turnout. McCain and Palin will continue with the fear-mongering and coded hate-messaging politics of distraction, having no credible answers to the economic crisis. But it probably won’t do them much good. The Republican Campaign and Party machinery, as usual, will divide their energies between turnout of their base and suppression of the votes of pro-democratic constituencies.
By all accounts the Obama campaign and progressive groups have done an amazing job of registering new voters. The rest of the campaign should be about energizing Obama supporters, keeping the excitement at a high level and getting all those new registrants to the polls on election day. It’s also critically-important that the Obama campaign and Democratic party groups be better prepared than were the Gore and Kerry campaigns to prevent voter intimidation and vote theft.

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