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Between the Lines

August 18, 2004

Who's undecided?

Not many of you, according to the polls I'm reading. Here in Washington state, according to the national polling company SurveyUSA, a mere 2 percent of likely voters have yet to decide who they'll give their presidential vote. Same thing in California. With John Kerry ahead of President Bush by 8 points in Washington and 11 in California, the presidential campaign barring such potential decision-changing shocks as a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 -- could be about over in these two left coast states.

Not so elsewhere, however.

Charlie Cook, a respected D.C. analyst and columnist for the National Journal, says 10 states are still too close to call, and that a relative handful of undecided voters in those states will determine the outcome in November.

At this point, there remains 10 states that are too close to call: Florida with 27 electoral votes, Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11), Nevada (5), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21) and Wisconsin (10). While too close to call, these states are not necessarily dead even. In Pennsylvania, President Bush, after holding a consistent lead over Kerry, finally slipped behind last month, but not far enough to warrant moving it into the "Lean Kerry" column. The same case exists in Florida, where a recent poll by a Republican firm for a private client put Kerry up by four points, but no one believes that the state is anything but a toss up. In Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico, Kerry seems to be up by a bit, but again not quite enough to move those into the Kerry column. Bush is ahead in Missouri, but it's a close call as to whether the lead is big enough to justify moving it into the "Lean Bush" column.

In adding up all the electoral votes that are in the safe and lean columns for each candidate, President Bush has a tight 211 to 207 lead in the Electoral College. Bush also has 120 votes in the toss up column. However, if you pushed each of the 10 toss up states to Kerry -- who seems to be ahead by a slight margin -- he would come out on top.

Which leaves the outcome squarely in the hands of undecided voters Nov. 2. The number of undecided varies from poll to poll, but it is in single digits in the national polls, with 5 to 8 percent a common range, and similar slim slices of the electorate exist in most individual states.

Gallup says its polling shows that in the last few weeks Bush has consolidated his lead in the so-called "red" states he won last time and, more significantly, has edged closer in some key battleground states:

The shift has been slight, to be sure, from a situation in which Bush was down by eight points to a situation in which he is down by three points. And, changes in the ballot within broad state groupings can be misleading. A candidate can gain overall among the group of swing states and not gain in terms of electoral votes if all gains are in one or two large states. The gains need to be distributed across specific states such that these states tip from one candidate to the other.

Still, above all else, the current data suggest that the race is quite close in competitive states. Gore received 49% of the vote in these same showdown states in 2000, compared with Bush's 48%. So Kerry is in roughly the same position that Gore was in four years ago. The battle for the electoral votes in several of these states in 2000 was, of course, extremely close, and the 2000 election in the final analysis hinged on just thousands of votes in states such as Florida, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, and Oregon. The data we have now suggest that the possibility for such razor-thin margins exists again this year.

In an election between a well-known incumbent and a challenger, however, it is rare for a majority of undecided voters to go for the incumbent. As Cook explains,

Keep in mind two important factors: First, when an elected president is seeking re-election, the contest is a referendum on the incumbent far more than it is a competition between candidates. Second, undecided voters historically have broken heavily against well-known, well-defined incumbents. This has proven true on the congressional, senatorial, gubernatorial and presidential level. That's the origin of the phrase in politics for incumbents, "what you see is what you get" -- you get pretty much the percentage on Election Day that the last round of polls indicate that you will get, while the undecided vote goes elsewhere.

Furthermore, Cook says, according to AP/Ipsos national polls of registered voters from April through early August,

While 49 percent of all registered voters approve of Bush's overall job as president, another 49 percent disapprove. Among just the undecided voters, only 25 percent approve, and 68 percent disapprove. Those are very ugly numbers for an incumbent. Not surprisingly, this pool of undecided voters tend to be disproportionately more Democrat than Republican, with 43 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 32 percent as independents and only 25 percent as Republicans.

With 75 days until election day, in what still looks like a potential replay of 2000 in terms of closeness, the one critical factor that Bush and Kerry can control is the quality of their campaigns. In my book, this is where Bush has a clear edge. He doesn't have much of a message, but at least it's understandable. Kerry needs to do some hard work in this area in order to prevail.

Posted by tbrown at 12:34 PM




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