Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have held nothing back as they battle for votes in what could be decisive primaries Tuesday in Ohio and Texas. But with polls showing a close race in both states, just how will a potentially powerful bloc of undecided voters make up their minds?
The campaigns are relying on many approaches: public sparring over national security and the North America Free Trade Agreement, millions of dollars in last-minute television and radio advertising, a grueling schedule of events for the candidates and their supporters, and aggressive get-out-the-vote operations.
David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa and co-author of “How Voters Decide,” said that in most years, “we assume it’s the most partisan, the most involved and aware voters that show up to vote in primaries,” while those who are undecided in the day or two before an election tend not to vote.
But this year, when Democrats have enjoyed record primary turnout and drawn thousands of new voters to the process, many have not made their decisions until late in the game. Clinton scored her dramatic New Hampshire victory, polls show, thanks to voters who made up their minds at the last minute. Polls conducted early this month in Ohio and Texas found that about 6 percent of likely primary voters were still undecided — with some surveys finding that number increasingly slightly in the last day or two.
“We are really at a stage where the race is close enough and people are excited,” said Redlawsk. “There is a sense among Democrats that it really matters this time. When you finally get there, you’ll find reasons to balance one way or the other.”
Clinton (D-N.Y.) unveiled two new ads on Monday. In Ohio, her supporters held a flurry of events, part of their "88 Counties, 88 Hours To Victory" effort. The Clinton campaign continued to press Obama on comments a top adviser reportedly made to Canadian officials in which he allegedly down-played Obama’s commitment to renegotiating NAFTA, dubbing the episode “NAFTA-Gate” in an e-mail to reporters.
Clinton also stressed her national security experience. In a conference call with journalists, Mark Penn, her top strategist, said internal polls showed that a controversial television ad released last week, had persuaded women – who have been one of her principal sources of support – that Clinton is the Democratic candidate best suited to be commander-in-chief.
Obama’s campaign moved swiftly to counter any charges that Clinton was better able to deal with national security emergencies and denied the NAFTA conversations. In a campaign appearance Monday in Texas, Obama (D-Ill.) stressed his commitment to fighting homelessness among veterans. He used his fund-raising edge to air a two-minute television ad in both states, promising to take the U.S. “in a fundamentally different direction.”
John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “In Defense of Negativity,” about negative campaign ads, said voters usually know less about candidates in primary elections than they do in general elections, and can shift their preferences more easily. “Because people don’t have that anchor of partisanship,” Geer said, “they can be moved around by small pieces of information.”
In that context, he said advertising – both negative and positive – can be more influential than it is in a general election. Geer said negative ads tend to draw the most attention, but he rejects the notion that negative ads are more effective than positive ads. While positive spots often tend to be vague, “negative ads have a lot more information in them,” although that doesn’t always work against their intended target.
Geer said “all the hand-wringing” over Clinton’s “ringing phone” ad was misplaced. “What Hillary Clinton is dong is totally legitimate,” he said. “If you want to sit behind the big desk, you have to be able to weather these attacks.”
But he said it was too soon to gauge if it had swayed voters. “It’s effective if it’s highlighting something that resonates with the public,” Geer said. “That’s what we don’t know yet. If Clinton wins in Ohio and Texas, a lot of people will claim it’s because of those ads.”
Redlawsk said voters “feed on information of all kinds.” While advertising can be effective, especially in alerting voters to a particular issue or dynamic, “it probably doesn’t make all the difference,” he said.
“One thing we do know is that grassroots stuff works,” Redlawsk said. “To the extend that a campaign can do it, the most effective way to get someone to go out and vote for you is to go knock on their door,” he said. “It’s also the most expensive way.”
Redlawsk said his research found that about half of this year’s Iowa caucus voters said that someone working for one of the presidential candidates knocked on their door – an accomplishment that cannot be matched after the early primary states.
The Internet has played an unprecedented role in this campaign, used to raise money, organize volunteers and inform voters. The Yahoo! Political Dashboard provides one way to monitor how voters collect information online. Its Buzz function measures how much Yahoo! users have searched for information on candidates in the past day. The latest figures show Obama outpacing Clinton, 77-21, in Texas, and 73-25 in Ohio.
“Voters get a pretty bad wrap…as often voting without a lot of knowledge,” said Redlawsk. “People do pay attention. They may not, for good reasons, be able to recall everything, but it does play a roll in the decision-making making process.”
Redlawsk said his research experiments – in which subjects go through a simulated presidential election, looking for information and making decisions – shows that voters “are actually driven by emotion, even when we don’t intend to be. Our existing feelings interact with information we accrue to help us interpret that information.” For example, voters may blame bad information about a candidate they like on the opposing campaign – rather than assessing the information fully, he said.
Redlawsk added that voters’ usual attention to issues had been complicated this year by another factor: issues of race and gender. The opportunity to elect the first woman president, or the first African-American president, has shifted the focus for many voters, he said.
There are many forces at play – the weather on voting day, high levels of early voting in both states, and voters’ analyses of which candidate stands a better chance of defeating Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.
If it all paints a complex picture, that’s because that’s how it looks on the ground. John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, pointed to what he called “the extreme level of the campaign in Ohio,” with get-out-the-vote drives, candidates, surrogates, advertising and more. “It’s a little bit hard to tell what might be moving voters.”
With all that activity, “The level of information among likely primary voters is very high,” Green said. “It may be that some primary voters can’t decide.”