Presidential Election 2012: Many Ads in Search of the Few Undecided
The two candidates, their parties and their supporters are hauling in record amounts of money to buy ads this cycle. But they're using that money to chase what both sides agree is an unusually small number of genuinely undecided voters.
To understand the early intensity of this year's presidential campaign, it's necessary to first understand this: Never has so much money been spent to chase so few voters.
"It's probably, on the low end, 6%, and on the high end, 10%," said one top campaign operative. That's lower than four years ago, and means more than 90% of voters already are locked in. The campaigns are aiming a lot of firepower at a small group of targets.
Why? To start with, the country is very polarized in general. It's split nearly evenly between the two parties, so the number of people wavering in the middle is small.
Recent research bears out this picture. A survey of the 2008 electorate by the American National Election Studies found that only 8% of voters switched candidates between June and November.
In other words, 92% of those surveyed ended up voting for the same candidate they leaned toward at the outset, despite the tumult of an economic crisis and supposedly "game changing" events such as Sen. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
And if that was the case in 2008, it's even more true in 2012, an election year with an incumbent in place. Most in the electorate already know what they think of President Barack Obama. A big chunk will vote for him no matter what, and a big chunk will vote against him no matter what.
The size of the battlefield is shrunk further by the fact that most states, like most voters, already are locked down. California and New York will go for President Obama, while Texas and Utah will go for Mitt Romney—period. Neither candidate's advertising dollars will be spent chasing voters there.
There are, both sides agree, only about a dozen true swing states. And by Election Day, some of them likely will be leaning one way or the other, meaning the tossups in the end might add up to half a dozen states.
The precise spread of truly undecided voters isn't constant across this battlefield, of course. For example, campaign strategists think the number of undecided voters is higher in Florida than elsewhere. Still, out of 130 million or so votes to be cast, the election likely will be decided in the end by several hundred thousand truly wavering voters in ...