The next president of the United States could be determined by a few million people living in the suburbs of Albuquerque, or Pittsburgh, or maybe St. Louis.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington says that "swing" voters -- those fence-sitters neither firmly for President Bush nor for his Democratic rival-apparent, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- make up about 29 percent of the American electorate. These voters tend, by and large, to be white, nonunion members between the ages of 30 and 49, who have some college education and live in a suburb.
But there are swing voters, and then there are those who are really swingy. Forget about the undecided vote in "red" (Republican) and "blue" (Democratic) states. Assuming that red states remain red and blue remain blue in November, the votes of undecideds in those heavily partisan places aren't likely to change the electoral college map much, says Andrew Kohut, the Pew center's director.
The more interesting question is how swing voters in swing states will vote. Considering how close the 2004 race is expected to be, these folks could constitute the single most critical bloc of voters in the election. That's where Albuquerque, Pittsburgh and a few other places figure in.
Pew says this group -- the swing swingers? -- currently represents just 9.5 percent of the electorate, or about 10 million voters.
The center's research director, Michael Dimock, says there are at least 15 states up for grabs in the fall: Minnesota, Arkansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oregon, Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and (naturally) Florida, birthplace of the chad. (Dimock's list is based on an average of how those states voted in the past three presidential elections.)
Bottom line: If you happen to be a swing voter in a swing state, brace yourself for months of phone calls, ads and direct mail pieces soliciting your vote. Bush started last week, with TV spots targeting 17 "battleground" states. Says Kohut of the undecideds, "It's going to get pretty weird for them."