WASHINGTON — Loretta Mitchell is 100 percent sure she's going to vote in the presidential race come November. She doesn't have a clue who'll get that vote.
That makes her a rare and highly sought after commodity: an undecided likely voter.
The challenge for President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is how to lay claim to this small but mightily important swath of the electorate. These people are truly up for grabs, claim they're intent on voting and yet aren't paying that much attention.
With six hard-fought weeks left in the campaign, just 7 percent of likely voters have yet to pick a candidate, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. When combined with those who are leaning toward one candidate or the other but far from firm in their choice, about 17 percent of likely voters are what pollsters consider "persuadable."
That includes 6 percent who give soft support to Obama and 4 percent for Romney.
Mitchell, a 68-year-old independent from the small town of Lebanon, Ind., voted for Obama in 2008 but says both candidates this year strike her as "true politicians, and I'm just really down with Washington and politicians."
Like a lot of undecideds, she isn't sure what's going to determine her ballot, and she's in no rush to decide.
The triggers for how and when the undecideds will make up their minds are intensely personal.
So the campaigns have to hope to pick them off as they pursue swing groups in the most competitive states — segments of voters such as independents, seniors and white working-class voters.
People such as Donna Olson, a 66-year-old semi-retired truck driver from Oskaloosa, Iowa, who calls herself a former Democrat.
Olson expects to wait until November to make up her mind, just as she did four years ago, when her vote ultimately went to Republican John McCain.
"I don't like either one of them," Olson says of Obama and Romney. She specifically mentions Obama's support for gay marriage and Romney's proposed tax breaks for wealthy Americans.
So how will she make up her mind?
"I'm just trying to watch a little bit of everything," says Olson. "It probably will come down to November, but I'm open to see what happens between now and then."
At least Olson's tuned in to the race. One huge hurdle for both sides in the next six weeks will be getting the attention of the undecideds.
While 69 percent of likely voters report they're paying a great deal of attention to the race, the figure drops to 59 percent for persuadable likely voters. Among the larger group of all registered voters, just 31 percent of persuadables show much interest in the campaign.
That's one reason both campaigns are pouring so much money into advertising in the most contested states, and why so many ads focus on the campaign's central issue, the economy.
Persuadable voters are deeply negative about the current state of the economy. Almost two-thirds call it poor, and only 28 percent expect the economy to improve in the coming year.
That is far more pessimistic than other voters. Fifty percent of likely voters who have settled on a candidate think the economy will improve in the next year.
While the campaigns are trying lock down every vote they can — through early voting whenever possible — there's always a chunk of the electorate that's late to make up its mind.
In 2008, 4 percent of voters said they didn't pick their candidate until the last day, and they favored Obama by 5 percentage points. Another 3 percent decided in the last three days, and they skewed toward McCain. A further 3 percent decided sometime in the last week and they were about evenly divided.
In 2004, 9 percent of voters reported deciding in the last three days, and they heavily favored Democrat John Kerry over President George W. Bush, who nonetheless won re-election.
In general, the persuadables look a lot like other likely voters, and they're similarly distributed around the country, which makes it tricky for the campaigns to specifically target them. About 52 percent are male and 48 percent female. They do skew slightly Democratic.
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