Searching for the Undecided

BOSTON – This is no place to go hunting for the endangered species of the 2004 election. A real, live, undecided voter is even harder to find than a self-confessed pessimist in this resolutely upbeat Democratic convention.

Nevertheless, the delegates, candidates and party honchos all have indecision on their minds. The good behavior, the careful image-and-message honing has been directed to that incredibly shrinking segment of the population who are uncertain, or – imagine! – just beginning to pay attention.

Ask any pollster within range of the Fleet Center – they are here in numbers just short of bloggers – and they will tell you that the public is more polarized, more locked down than the highways out of Boston. It may be July on Boston Harbor, but it's October in terms of the electorate. As few as 5 percent of voters are undecided.

As any speechwriter worth his software knows, somewhere between 58 percent and 70 percent of these undecided voters are women. These are not the fabled soccer moms. Nor are they just security moms. And they are definitely not Sex and the City singles, to reprise another of the handles that have been used to simplify the undefinable group of women who haven't made up their minds.

At one event, Marie Wilson, who heads a project to get these women to vote, called them "How-am-I-going-to-make-it-today-moms." Fit that on a bumper sticker.

Most of them are between 25 and 40. Two-thirds haven't been to college. Wilson parses their dubiousness about voting this way: "I don't have time, I don't think I know enough and I don't know if it matters." Karen White of EMILY's List, the political action group, describes the undecideds and their larger cohort, the swing voters, as women "who spend 23 hours a day focused on domestic and family issues." That leaves just a few minutes for politics.

It is of course refreshing to see the women who buy their coffee at Dunkin' Donuts and not Starbucks being wooed this earnestly. And who among us isn't charmed when women are the ones having trouble making a commitment?

But in some ways these women should be an easy match for the Democrats. They put issues like health care at the top of their domestic dance card. In answer to a pivotal question, they very strongly disapprove of the direction the country is going. Perhaps most startling, in a recent EMILY's List poll, women swing voters were asked to say something, anything, positive about the country and only 39 percent could come up with an answer.

It isn't just that women are having trouble making up their pretty little minds about what political hat to wear. They aren't wishy-washy. They have strong – but conflicted – feelings.

As Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster puts it, they are torn between national security interests and domestic interests. And on security issues, they are equally torn. They are disproportionately opposed to the war in Iraq and disproportionately worried about safety at home.

When the undecideds talk about Iraq, they talk about loss of life and the possibility of a draft and the money going to rebuild Iraqi schools rather than their own. But at the same time the undecideds are very certain that there is real danger in the world. Indeed as recently as February, 42 percent of women – 47 percent of all mothers – said they worry that they or someone in their families could be victims of terrorism.

It wasn't an accident that Bill Clinton included one line of scripture in his speech: Be Not Afraid. Bush plays this fear like a color-coded terrorism alert. Kerry hasn't yet convinced these women that he can protect the country.

So many are in the unenviable pickle of hating the war and thinking the commander in chief is a strong leader. Agreeing with Kerry on everything from health care to Iraq, but unsure he is strong enough to protect them from terrorists.

Not long ago, the peripatetic Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that a Republican candidate has to show "empathy" for swing women voters by understanding their big problem: the time crunch. When women hear that, Luntz said, they'll listen to the rest of message. It's the empathy, stupid.

For John Kerry, it's the safety, stupid. If he can assure undecided women that he can protect the country, they'll listen to the rest.

Want to know why the word strong has been attached to every evening schedule, every speech, every slogan, every duckling in the Public Garden? The woman who is having trouble making a commitment is looking for a guy who is a strong ... but not silent.

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