25% of registered voters undecided?
So says the latest AP/GFK poll. The trick is, how many of that 25% are actually going to vote?
The campaigns are playing this race as if the persuadables are closer to 10% rather than 25%. And they are concentrating on those who can be persuaded in battleground states. Romney will waste little money on trying to persuade California independents to support him, nor will Obama devote many resources to going after indies in Tennessee or Mississippi.
To be sure, many of the 1-in-4 voters who today say they are uncommitted will settle on a candidate by Election Day, Nov. 6.
Until then, Obama and Romney will spend huge amounts of time and money trying to win their votes, especially in the most competitive states that tend to swing between Republicans and Democrats each presidential election. Obama and Romney face the same hurdle, winning over wavering voters without alienating core supporters they need to canvass neighborhoods and staff telephone banks this fall to help make sure their backers actually vote.
"It presents an interesting challenge to the campaigns," said Steve McMahon, a founding partner in Purple Strategies, a bipartisan crisis management firm. "Moving to the middle means winning these voters, but it also means creating problems with your base."
Obama has sought to straddle both the left and the middle by announcing policies that expand access to contraception and allow immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children to be exempted from deportation and granted work permits if they applied.
Both issues are popular with his core supporters and centrist voters. The president also is promoting a list of what he says are bipartisan measures that would help homeowners, veterans, teachers and police officers, and he accuses Republicans of causing gridlock by refusing to act on them. It's a pitch intended for independent-minded voters frustrated by inaction in Washington.
Romney has broadened his tea party-infused message from the GOP primary and softened his tone as he looks to attract voters from across the political spectrum.
What the poll reflects more than anything is a dissatisfaction with the candidates and the political process. The truth is, most Americans have made up their minds already and it will take a major gaffe or a serious economic downturn to move those numbers very much between now and November.