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Published: Thursday, 11/2/2000

Shifting voters foster indecision

My fourth-grade teacher always said it:

There's no such thing as a dumb question.

Trusting this to be true, I called Tom Patterson yesterday. I figured he's the one person in this country who could best field my embarrassingly earnest question, to wit:

Just who, exactly, are all these so-called Undecided Voters we keep hearing so much about lately?

Because, frankly, I don't know a single person who, during this presidential campaign, has been or is now uncertain about which lever to pull Tuesday.

Dr. Patterson is the Bradlee professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He's also survey director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

This year, he says, the center's Vanishing Voter Project represents the first sustained polling effort to track not the horse race of the election, but voter involvement. (Check out www.vanishingvoter.org.)

And that contingent known as The Undecideds, according to Dr. Patterson, actually falls into several categories.

“Some say they're undecided because they don't want to reveal a preference. But I think we also catch people in transition. We look week-to-week at the shift in the vote, and you're seeing in the polls movement back and forth.

“Something really is going on out there. They really are literally undecided voters. What we're largely catching now are people on the move. They've been toying with one choice, and then something sets them loose from that mooring.”

Sorry, but this seems downright impossible. How can anyone be so totally absent any ideological framework as to be politically adrift just days before a presidential election?

Across the phone line, all the way from Cambridge, Mass., I can actually hear the wry smile in Dr. Patterson's voice as he answers.

“You've got to get to places where politics are really low on the radar screen. These are not people with a keen political interest. They have very low partisanship, if any. They don't really organize their choices along ideological lines. They have weak attachments to the political process.”

So, what you're really trying to say here is that, during this early November slide into home plate, the campaigns are desperately trying to snare the attention of an entire block of people who would rather watch a day-long Gilligan's Island marathon over five minutes of any political debate?

Tsk, tsk, tsk. There's that wry, long-distance smile again.

“By level of interest, by level of income, by level of attention to the news, undecideds are disproportionately on the low end of those categories. It's kind of those who are marginally interested in the political system. But that's traditionally been true, not just this year.”

If we hoped for discussion to grow increasingly meaty in these next six days, seems we're fools. To rope in undecided stragglers, strategists need only make emotional and/or single-issue appeals.

That pick-the-nice-guy factor counts, says Dr. Patterson, as does “the idea that prescription drugs or tax cuts is the single most important thing in the world.”

Ah, life should be as simple as politics pretends it is.

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays,

and Saturdays. Email her at roberta@theblade.com or call 1-419-724-6086.

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