What the Undecided Voters Are Thinking

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A canvasser for the Obama campaign reflects on the swing-state voters, especially women, who still haven't made up their minds.

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A campaign volunteer canvasses for Obama in Des Moines, Iowa. (Associated Press)

After I wrote about the Obama campaign's field organization this week, I got a lot of feedback from people involved in the campaign at the ground level. These volunteers and staffers who interact with voters every day have a perspective on the campaign that's deeper than the polls. This email in particular struck me as insightful. It's from a volunteer who's been canvassing for the Obama campaign in Virginia's Prince William County, a swing county in the D.C. exurbs. The volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, reflects on why women voters seem to be more undecided than men, the difficulty of motivating soft supporters, and why some people still haven't made up their minds at this late stage of the campaign.

I get the GOTV thing better now, having done a couple of weekends, and in particular the emphasis on women. That's not something I really got before -- why would women voters matter more than men?

Just a couple of sessions knocking on doors and you get the tremendous potential of women to move the election. I do think the Obama campaign has a better targeting system than the one you described [for Republicans]; a lot of the people I talked to leaned left or were potentially undecided. A few now leaned Romney. Which is exactly the people you want to target in a GOTV operation, no?

But I did see a lot of couples where the person "leaning left" was potentially the woman. On the occasions where they now "lean Romney," often it was the guy who answered the door and answered Romney for both of them. So finding a way to reach those women and balance that influence, and then on top of that actually get them to the polls is paramount. Not to sound backward; I'm well aware it's 2012 and (most!) women no longer simply vote as their husbands do. But for whatever reasons, women tend to be "softer" supporters, and the women who could be a powerful pro-Obama demographic are more likely to stay undecided, stay passive or otherwise stay at home on election day, and that obviously makes a difference. How many votes did Obama win Prince William county by in 2008? 100? [Actually more than 25,000, but the county swung Republican in 2009.] If Obama can't win Prince William, it's hard to see him having the message or the operation that makes it possible to win Virginia. Not saying it's impossible by any means, but still.

This all may be stuff you know. In short -- why Mitt Romney (and George Allen, and Scott Brown) hate Richard Mourdock right about now. On every level, the more passive women are in the election, they better off they are.

Staying passive also has an effect beyond that one vote. Go to Prince William and you'll see a ton of Romney signs, but relatively few Obama signs. Even among motivated Obama voters in that area, that was disheartening. They come away thinking Romney is definitely going to win and no one in their county supports Obama. It's important to remind them -- not true at all, there are a lot of Obama supporters in your county. But they're "softer" -- more passive, less visible -- and that has a bit of an exponential effect. Everyone wants to vote for a winner. Say your candidate is a winner loudly enough, and people start to believe it. Call it the Fox News strategy.

Last comment -- despite all the noise about "how are there undecided voters after all this time, and are they idiots or what?" from the more politically engaged, you get a very real sense of how there are smart people who are genuinely undecided. They just care about different things that the more politically engaged do. And they feel like those issues go unaddressed or under-addressed, and they do. High-information vs. low-information is the wrong term, because neither campaign is necessarily speaking their language, a lot of the time.

For more about what's up with undecided voters, read Marc Ambinder's take.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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