President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would like to win over undecided voters -- but there just aren't many of them left.
So in a super-tight election year, the campaigns are focusing more on appealing to their base voters than on winning new converts, preaching to a choir their teams hope will sing at full volume by Election Day.
It's smart politics: Internal and public polls consistently show far fewer undecided voters than four years ago, the result in part of a polarized electorate that has had four years to get to know Obama.
The fire-up-the-base thinking informs all aspects of the campaigns, from Obama's tax-the-rich rhetoric and decision to tap liberal champion Elizabeth Warren for a plum speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention to Romney's recent embrace of tea party heroes Ted Cruz and Richard Mourdock and the hawkishness he touted on his trip to Israel last month.
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a centrist Democrat in office who has morphed into a happy warrior for the president as co-chairman of his campaign, said there aren't many undecided voters for Obama or Romney to persuade.
"Whether or not some of those who have made up their minds are willing to be persuaded otherwise, I don't know," said Strickland said. "There are relatively few people, percentage wise, that are undecided at this point."
Gallup's daily tracking poll shows the number of undecided voters hovering between 6 percent and 8 percent -- compared with 11 percent at this point in 2008. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put the percentage of undecided voters at 3 percent, down from 12 percent in late July 2008. A Pew survey found 5 percent didn't know who they'd vote for, half of the number at this point in 2008.
One Obama campaign aide said the team uses the president's events not as a mechanism to win new supporters but more as a way to energize the ones they already have.
"We want to make sure that our supporters know" when Obama comes to town, the adviser said of the president's campaign appearances. "We make sure that folks who expressed interest and folks who volunteered can see the president. ... We're not doing persuasion events right now."
Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, said his research shows the smaller universe of undecided voters already has reached a conclusion on Obama but has yet to do so on Romney.
"Here's the advantage we have: You look at the attitudes of those undecided and they are not undecided on Barack Obama," Newhouse said. "They've decided on Barack Obama. They're not voting for Barack Obama. These are not voters who are open to Barack Obama. The only candidate they're still trying to figure out is Mitt Romney. There is opportunity for movement on those voters, getting them out to vote and defining who Mitt Romney is."
Voters have had one term to learn about Obama after his unlikely victory in 2008.
Jeff Jones, Gallup's managing editor, said the latest polling tracks with typically lower undecided numbers during presidential reelection campaigns. He said a barrage of negative advertising by the campaigns and outside groups also has led voters to make up their minds earlier. This year's August figures are similar to where the 2008 undecided numbers were by mid-October, he said.
"The further you get in the campaign, the lower it gets," Jones said of the number of undecided voters. "It's more exposure, a better sense of the candidates."
Pete Snyder, the chairman of the GOP's Virginia Victory operation, pegged the real undecided figure in his state at as low as 2 percent.
So Romney's team is looking for people who are already on board.
"A lot of what we've been focused on so far is motivating the base and identifying folks who have not voted in the last cycle, especially on the Republican side, and cranking up the base," Snyder said.
Both campaigns accuse the other of running campaigns targeted at the extreme fringes. And to an extent, both are right. The self-polarization is visible at the president's events, where crowds by design are far smaller than during his 2008 campaign. There are few who aren't planning to vote for him -- the question is whether and how much they will volunteer for Obama's effort.
Obama was introduced at his Wednesday campaign rally in Denver by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown student insulted by Rush Limbaugh in February after she appeared at a House hearing about birth control. Obama's advance team packed the crowd with women who cheered loudly through Fluke's remarks and Obama's defense of his health care law.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the campaign wants to excite the president's base as well as to win undecided voters and "soft supporters" of Romney. And even though there aren't many undecided voters left, she said there are plenty to swing the election in Obama's favor.
"Even if it's 2 percent or 3 percent or 7 percent, that still is enough undecided voters and soft supporters of the opponent to decide the election," Psaki said.
Yet just attending an Obama 2012 campaign event requires a dedication few undecided voters or Romney supporters are likely to have. It's a two-day commitment -- one to stand in line for tickets and another to attend the event.
Geri Smith, a retired postal worker from Copley, Ohio, volunteered for Obama's 2008 campaign but was miffed when she had to devote 2? hours to standing in line outside a strip mall to get tickets for Obama's rally last week in Akron. Obama staff brought water for the queuing supporters but no food, she said.
In 2008, "you had to have tickets, but you could just walk right up and get them and they would give you four," she said. "This time, they only gave you one."
Smith, 60, said her 17-year-old grandson wanted to see Obama but couldn't secure two days off from his job at a department store.
Since becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, Romney has also begun requiring tickets to his events, though most attendees order them online and print them at home. Campaign aides at his events help those who don't have access to the Internet or a printer.
Obama, saddled with a lousy economy, is driving his message left rather than center. He's pitching the country on tax hikes for the rich, comparing Romney's economic plan to "Robin Hood in reverse -- it's Romney Hood" and halting deportations for some undocumented immigrants.
While Obama is pushing his message to women in Colorado, Romney's campaign is targeting the state's blue-collar and professional men, said Kevin Ingham, a nonpartisan Denver-based pollster unaffiliated with the campaigns.
"There's so few people that are undecided right now that this campaign is about speaking to specific audiences," Ingham said. "They are trying to eke out every single bit of advantage that they can from their target demographics."
Romney made a campaign stop Saturday in very red Indiana to stump at an Evansville barbecue joint with Mourdock, the GOP Senate candidate, and also has released a Spanish-language Web video courting voters in Texas. That came in a press release with an introduction from Cruz -- just days after the insurgent won his own Senate primary. Romney had not endorsed in either Cruz's primary race against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst or Mourdock's versus Sen. Dick Lugar.
"The true undecided voters are the people who are undecided about whether they are going to participate," said Greg Haas, an Ohio Democratic operative who recently replaced the Obama campaign's state director as chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party. "You're getting a lot of people who know who they're going to vote for, the only question is are they going to vote."
And that gives the general election campaign a much more partisan feel, said Jefrey Pollock, the pollster for pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.
"There's both a smaller number of undecided and a smaller number of people open to changing their position," he said. "It's a dramatic increase in the partisanship of the electorate. You have people who bunker down and they're in their position and they're sticking there. Whereas before there was much more fluidity, now people are far more stuck in their corner and stuck in their ways."
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