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The float vote

If you want to know who'll pick the next president, just use the formula 4M + 2M.

June 22, 2008|Frank Luntz | Frank Luntz, a communications advisor whose clients have included Rudolph W. Giuliani, Michael R. Bloomberg and two dozen Fortune 500 companies, is the author of "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."

The British have a more sophisticated and accurate lexicon to describe their elections than we crass Americans do. U.S. politicians aggressively "run for election," while British candidates more calmly "stand for office." And what we call "swing voters," as though they swing back and forth between candidates like a rusty screen door in a midsummer storm, are more accurately defined by the British term "floating voters" because they gently float between candidates -- occasionally stopping at "undecided" to catch their political breath.

Floaters play an important role in every close electoral contest, but in races in which high turnout is expected -- as is the case for the 2008 presidential contest -- they are absolutely vital. Gone are the days when the candidate most successful in turning out his loyal partisans inevitably won. With split-ticket voting and the number of independent voters soaring, no presidential candidate can capture a majority of the nation's vote without dominating the floating vote. If money is the mother's milk of politics, floaters are the cereal itself.

And reaching them has never been easier. Unlike some past elections, when the only people really paying attention were political junkies and activists, everyone is watching and voting this time -- including the floaters. The debates attracted record viewers, the primaries record turnout, and the number of campaign contributors has already hit an all-time high even though the general election is still months away. Politics is "in" this year, and the floaters are right smack in the middle of it.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 29, 2008 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Politics: An article in the June 22 Opinion section about "floating" voters stated that Missouri has picked the winning presidential candidate in all but one election in the last 50 years. It is 52 years.

So, are you a floater? Just answer the following two simple questions. On a 0-10 scale, with zero meaning "no way" and 10 being "definitely," how likely is it that you would consider voting for Barack Obama? Then answer the same question for John McCain. If you respond with a score of three or lower for either candidate, forget it. One or the other has already been crossed off your list. And if one of the candidates scores a seven or higher, you've essentially made up your mind but just aren't ready to say "I do" quite yet. But if you give both candidates a four, five or six, you are solid gold -- their lifeblood. Pick your cliche.

Right now, fully 80% of Americans give at least one of the candidates a passing or failing grade, according to polling that I've done -- and they are breaking relatively evenly for McCain and Obama. That leaves 20% floating around like rowboats looking for a dock slip. According to the website RealClearPolitics, the average of national polls has Obama beating McCain 47% to 43%, with just 10% seemingly undecided or uncommitted. But the real floating vote is twice that number because it includes people with a slight preference, not just those with no preference at all. And it is that 20%, not the outspoken partisans on either side, that will decide this historic election.

This discussion of definitions may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it's not. "Undecided" or "swing voters" may be unwilling to express a preference for a specific candidate, but that doesn't mean they're open to all options. Floating voters, by comparison, are more important because they're still in buying mode -- willing to kick the tires, go for a test drive and read up on the different warranties. Think of it this way: An undecided voter can be 90% certain of whom they will support (or oppose) on election day. A floating voter is genuinely 50-50.

For floaters, ideology has less of an effect on their ballot than ideas do -- and partisanship is less important than principles. By and large, research has shown us, they are simply looking for meaningful results, whether delivered by a Republican or a Democrat. Whether the issue is Iraq or immigration, abortion or affirmative action, they're more interested in the candidate's ability to act than where the candidate stands. Polls and focus groups suggest that they vote against, not for; they are rejecters, not embracers -- and the candidate they reject the least is the candidate they will ultimately support.

Who are these voters? Think of the political equation 4M + 2M: middle age, middle income, middle of the road and mid-America, plus Missouri and Michigan.

* Middle age. Obama is likely to win a larger share of the under-30 vote than any candidate in modern history, including Ronald Reagan in 1984. McCain is running relatively strong among senior citizens and is managing to pull a few older Democrats into his camp. The battle here is among voters age 40 to 59 who don't have strong partisan leanings. They appreciate Obama's energetic, youthful appeal but also admire McCain's knowledge and wisdom. Unlike younger voters, they aren't as swept up in "Obama-mania," and unlike older voters, they aren't as concerned about such issues as Social Security and Medicare. Simply put, these are the voters for whom leadership and a clear plan for restoring economic security and peace of mind are most critical.

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