Number of undecided U.S. voters is shrinking

Candidates hotly pursue few who may decide race

May 30, 2004|By Maria L. La Ganga | Maria L. La Ganga,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CLAYTON, Mo. - Marshall Burstein, man of action, is stuck.

"I run a company or two; I have to be decisive," he said. But when it comes to choosing the next president, the 44-year-old Burstein is waiting to see whom Sen. John Kerry picks as a running mate. And he wants to hear the presumed Democratic nominee and President Bush debate.

"A lot of people are picking Kerry because they don't like the war [in Iraq]. ... I'm still learning about him," he said.

With the nation clearly divided on a number of issues, the presidential campaigns operating nonstop and torrents of political ads already unleashed, undecided voters are fast becoming an endangered species. They are also a precious commodity to both parties.

Closely contested states

Many political analysts say as few as 2 million to 3 million voters could make the difference in this election - women and men in the 17 or so most closely contested states who are struggling over whom to back.

"There's a very small pool of voters out there who are up for grabs, and the amount being spent on this election is higher than we've ever spent before," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn.

He added that the number of undecided voters "is the lowest I can remember, and I've been covering politics for about 40 years."

Here in the graceful suburbs that radiate out from St. Louis, it took scores of interviews to find a handful of undecided voters more than five months before the election.

There will always be those like Cheryl Colonnello - a pregnant pediatric resident who lives in University City, works 80 hours a week, has a toddler, a husband and a dog, and barely has time to brush her hair, let alone pay attention to the candidates.

But political experts believe many of the undecided voters are of a different breed. Generally centrist and turned off by what they regard as strident partisanship, they are thinking about the election and "wrestling with their choice," said Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore.

`Distasteful' choice

Those who are contemplating their choices should give both major-party candidates pause. The war in Iraq looms large with many and has created doubts about Bush. But Kerry hasn't introduced himself well enough to win them over.

Abbie Carlin, 51, who says she has never voted for a Democrat, can't bring herself to vote for Bush this year. On opening day of the Clayton Farmer's Market, she shopped for organic produce and rued the violence in Iraq.

Persuaded that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction that could be turned against the United States, Carlin said she initially believed that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

Then she was appalled, she said, when Bush declared the war was over, only to see U.S. casualties escalate amid no discoveries of Iraqi nuclear weapons.

Now, she says, she feels betrayed - by the war, by the way the administration has handled its aftermath, by the Iraqi prisoner scandal. "A huge, horrible mess," is how she described it.

But she said she cannot bring herself to vote for Bush's rival. Kerry, Carlin said, is a politician she just can't trust, although she's beginning to think "you can't trust any of them."

Her default is to sit this election out. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "I might not vote. They're both extremely distasteful to me."

Burstein, the owner of a home furnishing company and an interior design business in Clayton, voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, independent Ross Perot in 1996.

He doesn't consider Iraq to be another Vietnam, but he questions why Bush targeted the country for war. "They haven't proven there were atomic warheads there, so what's the point," he said.

His decision, Burstein said, is made harder by much of the coverage of the campaign and the attacks each side exchanges. "Me, the guy reading the paper, is left wondering whether George Bush is as dumb as they say. I don't know," he said. "Does it matter that Kerry went to war? I don't know."

Nearly every recent national poll has found the percentage of undecided voters to be in the mid-to-low single digits.

A Gallup survey released early this month said that 3 percent of those polled do not know who they will vote for in November.

In comparison, a Gallup Poll at about this time in 2000 found 8 percent of the electorate undecided.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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