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After the Debates Are Over, the Undecideds Will Surely Have a Say

October 11, 2000|ROY RIVENBURG and MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Most voters have figured it out by now. They know who they want in the White House.

But every four years at this time, roughly one in 10 voters has yet to make up his or her mind.

Several factors lie behind the indecision, including less than riveting candidates, a lack of hot-button issues and voters who are either too busy, apathetic or ditsy to decide until the last minute.

As Al Gore and George W. Bush prepare for their second presidential debate tonight, they will be out to sway this bloc. Due to the tightness of the race, the fence-sitters are particularly crucial this year.

Undecided voters usually fall into two major categories, says John Aldrich, a political scientist at Duke University. The first category consists of people who tend to be uninvolved and uninformed about every election. The second group--which he says might be the larger segment in this election--is made up of voters who have a tough time making up their minds because of the relative similarity between the major candidates.

The first presidential debate apparently did little to influence undecided voters' decision-making. The two candidates dressed nearly identically and did not distinguish themselves--at least in a positive way, Aldrich says.

"I don't think either one of them should be president," says Randy Young, 43, an undecided voter from Lowville, N.Y., who recently participated in a Los Angeles Times Poll (as did the other voters interviewed for this story). "I watched the debate Tuesday [Oct. 3] night . . . and they didn't really say nothing. It sounds like they're playing games. They're not fighting for the people."

The largest group of undecideds this year appears to be white women around the age of 50, according to Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, a daily political tip sheet. The candidates are hoping their focus on topics like prescription drugs and breast cancer will resonate with this crucial voting bloc.

"All the talk about prescription drugs in the first debate was simply a play for these older women," said Todd. "There's also been a lot made about breast cancer, which is a safe way to reach them, too. If younger women were the key group, you'd see more ads about abortion and gun control."

But it's not just the candidates that fail to generate a spark. It's the state of the nation--as perceived by voters. "There aren't any galvanizing issues," says Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University. Without a Vietnam War or Iran hostage crisis or sluggish economy, many voters aren't motivated, he says. The economy is good, the nation is at peace, "so we end up talking about the word 'rats' in [one of Bush's TV commercials] and Gore's sighing during the debate," Smoller says.

Aldrich agrees: "No true focal point has really emerged in this election."

The decline of political parties also fuels voter confusion. People used to vote a straight party line, Smoller says, but in recent years, the number of people calling

themselves independents has soared. "Party identification was a way of simplifying politics for people," he says. Take that away and voters must search their own hearts and analyze the candidates and issues to figure out where they stand. "It's a lot of homework," he says. "It's like cramming for a test on civic affairs."

Dorothy Smith, a registered Democrat from Dunn, N.C., is among those struggling to make sense of all the campaign gobbledygook. What she had hoped for in the first debate was more details about health care. Although that topic occupied a large chunk of the debate, Smith felt both candidates talked only superficially about it.

"I see a lot of senior citizens who have to decide between paying for their medicine and eating," she says. "We need to take care of our people, but I didn't hear them talk about that specifically. . . . They just seemed to bicker. I just got the idea they were both trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I wasn't impressed with either one at all."

Yet details don't necessarily clarify things. Joann Lawler, a business manager who works outside Philadelphia, knows plenty about both major candidates but remains unsure whom to back in November.

"I'm still flipping a coin on this one," says the 44-year-old registered Republican, who follows the campaign through the Economist magazine. "I'd be happier with Bush if he'd cut his tax-cut proposal, and I'd be happier with Gore if he'd cut his spending proposals."

Then there's the education factor. Generally speaking, the lower the level of schooling, the less likely someone is to vote or pay attention to the race, says Smoller.

One Midwesterner explained her indecision thusly: "It's so confusing. There's so much talk about the Kennedys backing one of the candidates. That's Bush, right?"

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