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Undecided "swing" voters hold key to presidential election
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Undecided "swing" voter Joe Raasch lives in Shakopee and works for a major Twin Cities-based marketing company. He wants more specifics from the candidates and less fighting between the two campaigns. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
For most American voters, there's little question which candidate they'll be supporting in the presidential election. Most people made up their minds a long time ago. With the nation so evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, political observers say the major party faithful will basically cancel each other out at the polls in November. They say power to decide the election ultimately belongs to undecided so-called "swing" voters --roughly 10 percent of eligible voters.

St. Paul, Minn. — Unlike the vast majority of voters throughout the country and in Minnesota, Joe Raasch has not yet decided who to vote for in the presidential race. No political party can count Raasch as a dependable supporter. Raasch, 38, lives in Shakopee and works for a major Twin Cities-based marketing company. He says he's been all over the political spectrum since he cast his first vote supporting Ronald Reagan's bid for re-election in the mid 1980's.

"From a governor's stand point, I voted for Sen. Coleman for governor," Raasch recalls. "I voted also on the Democratic side. I voted for Bill Clinton the first session but not the second one. I voted for Paul Wellstone for his first term but no term after that. It varies by candidate. Much more by candidate (than) by political party."

It is precisely voters like Joe Raasch the two presidential campaigns are desperately trying to attract. All of the travel, all the commercials - it's all aimed at a relatively small percentage of the population yet to decide on the presidential race, just nine percent of registered voters in Minnesota according to the latest Minnesota Public Radio/Pioneer Press poll. Political experts insist they're the voters who will decide the election.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs has been researching undecided voters in Upper Midwestern battleground states. Jacobs says a lot of attention is being focused on who those swing voters are and how campaigns can best reach them.

"These folks if you kind of look at their voting record and sometimes it doesn't look coherent particularly if your a Democrat or a Republican trying to get a read on them," Jacobs explains. "On policy issues they're conservative on some issues like fiscal issues they're for balanced budget. They're moderate on social issues. They can be liberal on some of the key economic issues such as health care coverage so they're very hard to pin down."

Jacobs surveyed more than 1,500 registered voters in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. He says he found those who have yet to make up their minds on the presidential race, generally favor President Bush on national security issues. They tend to like Sen. John Kerry on domestic issues such as the economy, health care and education.

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Image University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs

"When swing voters, as do many other voters, look out at these two major party candidates, they tend to see two presidencies," Jacobs says. "On national security issues they like Bush. On domestic issues they decidedly like Kerry. So they're kind of schizophrenic in the kind of president they would want and each candidate is trying to offset they're disadvantage and play to their strong suit."

Undecided voter Joe Raasch says he see the candidates along the line Jacobs describes.

"From President Bush's standpoint I have full confidence as commander in chief, he's going to do everything it takes to protect this country," Raasch says. "And Sen. Kerry, I think it's going to be, the main thing I like about him is he has some really good ideas about taking care of individuals, taking care of social service programs, taking care of education."

Professor Jacobs says the presidential campaigns clearly target their messages to voters like Raasch.

"John Kerry plays to swing voters by talking up national defense and terrorism," Jacobs says. "George Bush plays to Swing voters by talking about his domestic agenda and what he's doing to make people's every day lives including their job situation better."

Any of the candidates right now, the quickest way they could do to impress me would be to quit talking about the other side
- Undecided "swing" voter Joe Raasch

Undecided voter Joe Raasch says he'd like more specifics from the candidates. He thinks Bush and Kerry and the legions of surrogates speaking on behalf of their campaigns spend far too much time criticizing each other at the expense detailing their own plans.

"Any of the candidates right now, the quickest way they could do to impress me would be to quit talking about the other side," Raasch says. "They're sniping back and fourth at each other and all that energy that's expended sniping back and fourth whether it's the parties specifically or some of the peripheral parties that aren't funded directly by the political parties - all that energy, if that could be actually put into issues and results, imagine what a difference that could make."

So why, if undecided-swing voters want the focus on issues not on attacks, do the candidates keep throwing bricks? Political science professor Larry Jacobs says Bush and Kerry are navigating a fine line between attracting new support and firing up their core supporters in hopes of bolstering turnout.

"They want to mobilize their base but they also want to reach out and try to grab onto those swing voters," Jacobs explains. "Unfortunately they can't put each of those groups of voters into different rooms and talk to them separately. They have to talk to them at the same time and the message and positions they take can help and hurt them with each of those different groups of voters."

For example, Jacobs says rhetoric about social issues such as gay marriage generally builds support among the loyal Republican base, but it's a turn off for the average swing voter. On Kerry's side, rank and file Democrats wildly applaud the Massachusetts senator when he rips into President Bush over the war on Iraq. But Jacobs says most swing voters trust Bush over Kerry on national defense.

Undecided voter Joe Raasch says he's looking forward to the presidential debates and hoping they'll shed more light on what the two candidates would do with the next four years in the White House. The first debate will take place Thursday at the University of Miami.

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