Most of the undecided voters in the United States typically have been women, whose last-minute votes have determined the outcome of every presidential election since 1980. Women who vote in American presidential elections not only outnumber men among potential voters, they often don't decide who to vote for until right before the November election. Political scientist Sue Carroll says that keeps everyone guessing.
"Women will undoubtedly continue to outnumber men by a substantial margin among those voters who wait until the last weeks and even last days of the campaign to make their decisions about whether to vote for Bush or to vote for Kerry," says Ms. Carroll.
The Rutgers University professor says women play a critical role in election years, because presidential campaigns usually target undecided voters. According to Vincent Breglio, vice president of the market research firm Wirthlin Worldwide, only one in 10 Americans are undecided in this 2004 election, but 54 percent of those are women.
"The undecided vote is going to be very pivotal, and because it does favor women, I think this campaign is one that could well be marked by a significant difference being made by undecided women's votes," he said.
One reason for women's uncertainty at election time is that women are generally more critical of the president than men are. According to polls by Lake, Snell and Perry, many women are displeased with current U.S. policies.
"Women are much more dissatisfied with the direction of the country than men are," says Celinda Lake, president of the company. "Women tend to be more negative about the president's job approval. Men by only five points think the country is going in the wrong direction, women by a whopping 24 points think the country is going in the direction."
Many women claim that neither President Bush nor John Kerry relate to women's issues like equal pay, women's health, and child care. Rutgers Professor Sue Carroll, however, says undecided women voters are more likely to vote for the Democrat in November.
"The pattern that we are seeing with the gender gap in 2004 looks a lot like the pattern we saw in 2000. In 2000, the majority of women voted for Al Gore while the majority of men voted for George W. Bush," she notes. "Recent polls have shown, in a very similar fashion, women are more likely to favor the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, while men more often prefer the Republican candidate, George W. Bush."
Because the millions of undecided women are statistically liberal, pollster Vincent Breglio says that the Democratic ticket may benefit from their last-minute influence.
"In a very close Kerry victory, the national data today support the conclusion that undecided women voters may well have contributed a significant margin of support to his victory," says Mr. Breglio.
Mr. Breglio also says that undecided women focus most heavily on the state of the economy and healthcare when choosing a candidate. Celinda Lake sees this as a chance for John Kerry to make his move.
"I think Kerry has a tremendous opportunity with his healthcare agenda, with his jobs plan, to appeal to these undecided women voters, and it's going to be a question of getting that message out," she says.
Professor Sue Carroll is confident that women will make their decisions soon, whether the candidates choose to focus on them or not:
"Many of these women haven't really paid that much attention, they're busy with other things, they haven't paid that much attention to the campaign yet," she adds. "They will be paying more attention after Labor Day. And the challenge for the campaigns is both to contour a message that will appeal to them and also to figure out strategies for reaching them."
With only two months left before Election Day, candidates and undecided women voters both have important tasks ahead of them.