Former University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein loves to tell of the time he went out hunting for undecided voters in Wisconsin. It was in the midst of the 2004 presidential election, and a public radio station asked him to talk to voters who couldn't decide between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. The only problem was, they couldn't find any undecideds. They searched the state far and wide, and virtually everyone had made up their mind.
Fast forward to 2012, when the state is in the grips of an unprecedented gubernatorial recall election. Recent polls give incumbent Gov. Scott Walker around a 5% lead against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, virtually the same margin by which Walker beat Barrett in the 2010 gubernatorial race.
But what really stands out is how few undecided voters there are in the state. Most polls show that only about 3% of the electorate has yet to make up their mind on the race. A year and a half of rallies, protests, recall elections and television ads have completely saturated Wisconsin voters, leaving them with clear designs on how they will vote on June 5. But if the polls really are within 5%, how that remaining 3% votes could make all the difference in whether Walker retains his seat or the unions gain an unprecedented victory in replacing him with Barrett.
So who are these people - the infinitesimal minority who can't make up their minds between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett?
Some of them might be people who are inclined to favor Walker, but didn't like the way the governor tried to rush through his public-sector collective bargaining reforms. Walker himself recognizes that he should have more thoroughly explained what he was trying to do before "dropping the bomb," as he once called it.
"The lesson learned from the past year is, when I take on fixing these things, I have to do a better job early on of engaging people and making a case about the challenges," Walker told me in a recent interview. "I just tried to come in and fix things without explaining them first. Most people in government talk about things and never fix them. So if I had to choose between the two, I'd rather be the one who fixes things rather than just talks about it."
Or they may be voters inclined to support Barrett, but don't support the idea of yanking a sitting governor out of office based on what essentially amounts to a policy dispute. A March Rasmussen poll showed that 54% of the state's voters opposed holding a recall election at all, including a decent sample of Democrats. This led one Democratic pollster to warn that if Barrett were to win, he would essentially need a margin of about 55% to account for the Democrats who didn't like Walker but were philosophically opposed to the recall election.
For campaigns, finding that last handful of undecided voters can be extremely expensive. In one northwestern state Senate recall race last year, independent groups bought about $3 million worth of television ads on Minneapolis television to reach the 10th Senate District, which housed only about 6% of the media market's viewers. Of the district's 180,000 residents, only half were voters; of those voters, about 95% of them had already made up their minds. It gets to the point where it would actually be cheaper (and decidedly more illegal) for the campaign to buy each undecided voter a new pony to influence their vote.
It is difficult to ascertain how the "three percenters" will eventually vote. It would seem that the longer the campaign goes on, the more they would swing toward Walker; he has a lot of money to spend on his own message, and people seem to be getting the message that his reforms haven't decimated public services in the state. But if there were a last-minute pre-election surprise, it's not hard to see those voters bailing on Walker and handing Barrett a win.
In political hotbeds like Madison, it seems odd that nonpolitical creatures actually exist out in the world. I mean, who legitimately can't make up their mind between Walker's strident conservatism and Barrett's promise to reinstate union bargaining power? It's even more puzzling that it is precisely those people who will be deciding whether Walker stays in office or not. Especially if he buys a lot of ponies.
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.