The mystery of the undecided voter: who and why?

CINCINNATI Wed Oct 29, 2008 1:38pm EDT

1 of 8. Senior advisors to Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Steve Dupree wait for an elevator in New York, September 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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CINCINNATI (Reuters) - It's not a lack of data that has made Ohio photographer Chad Moon one of those rare and coveted people on the U.S. political landscape -- an undecided voter late in the campaign. He knows plenty about presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

"It's not that I don't have enough information, it's that I don't particularly like either one of them," explained Moon, 32, a small business owner and father of two.

With just days to go before the November 4 election, undecided American voters are finding themselves the center of attention of campaigns looking for a few more precious votes in key states.

What is wrong with these people? After more than a year of nonstop political campaigning by Democratic Illinois Sen. Obama and Republican Arizona Sen. McCain, what more do voters possibly need to know to make up their minds?

As a resident of a politically divided and vote-rich Ohio, Moon has been bombarded by TV ads, robotic phone calls and the headlines that come with frequent visits to the area by McCain and Obama. So he knows where the candidates stand.

Trouble is, Moon is a fiscal conservative who doesn't like Obama's tax plan and a pro-choice secular voter who doesn't like McCain's social positions or his vice presidential running mate, Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do," said Moon.

When will he decide? "Hopefully soon."

AS MUCH INFORMATION AS POSSIBLE

Eight percent of voters remain undecided in their choice for president, according to a survey released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"Undecided voters are less educated, less affluent, and somewhat more likely to be female than the average voter," Pew said of the survey results, noting the undecided voters are also more likely to attend church regularly.

Figuring out who these people are and how they make decisions has become something of a parlor game with election experts. CNN brought in a doctor and a brain scan to discuss decision-making. The New York Times let neuroscientists Joshua Gold and Sam Wang try to explain the indecision.

While comedians and cynics tend to make fun of undecided voters as attention-seeking actors or oblivious fools, Gold turned the argument on its head. Why shouldn't voters reserve judgment until all the information is in?

"People tend to think of them as dolts, because how could they not have gathered enough evidence by now?" Gold said in an interview. "But from a purely rational standpoint, it makes perfect sense not to commit until you go into the voting booth because you can collect as much information as possible."

Political scientist Harwood McClerking is a bit more cynical. He believes a good portion of those who say they are undecided have made an unconscious decision already -- and will "come home" and vote according to their demographic group.

That is, a white church-going man from the U.S. South will tend to vote Republican, while an urban educated woman in the Northeast will tend to vote Democrat.

But McClerking also believes there's an added racial element to the undecided voters this year: that many of them have already ruled out Obama but are afraid of saying so for fear the interviewer will think they are racist.

"My personal rule of thumb, when I look at a poll, is I take roughly half of (the undecided portion) and add it to the white candidate, to give me a sense of what is really going on," said McClerking, a professor at Ohio State University.

By that measure, he believes the race is closer than current polls showing Obama ahead of McCain would appear.

Still, all of the science and second-guessing doesn't help Phoenix homemaker Mavy Dean decide between Obama and McCain. With three children under five, Dean has little time to read up about the candidates and is agonizing about her decision -- especially because it's her first election.

Born in Mexico and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Dean is not taking her right to vote lightly.

"It's very serious, because I have three children and they live in the United States, and things like education, safety and morals are very important to me," Dean said.

"I keep going back and forth, and I'm not sure yet," she said. "I'm going to pray about it, and I hope that the day that I vote I feel comfortable with my vote."

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Ed Stoddard in Dallas; editing by David Wiessler)

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