(CNSNews.com) - When presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore debate Tuesday night, they won't be talking to all Americans. That's because for most Americans, the matter is already decided.
Historically, statistics show that almost half of eligible voters aren't going to vote. Of the remaining people who are likely voters, recent public opinion surveys show that around 40 percent say they are voting for Bush, and around 40 percent say they're voting for Gore. Twelve to 15 percent of likely voters remain undecided.
Professionals who track such data said it's not difficult to determine who represents the majority of these undecided voters. "Anywhere from two-thirds or 65-70 percent of undecided voters are married white women with kids," said pollster John Zogby. The remaining undecided voters are white male independent voters and those with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000, according to Zogby. "Those are the groups that [the candidates] are going to be targeting," he predicted.
One of Zogby's contemporaries, pollster Scott Rasmussen, agrees, saying these are the people Bush and Gore will really be talking to in the debate.
The Message Matters
The need to focus on these undecided voters means the candidates will likely focus attention on issues important to women and political centrists, according to Rasmussen. "You're certainly not going to want to pander for the women's vote exclusively, but I do think it means they'll be talking about a lot of issues that will resonate with women," said Rasmussen.
Rasmussen says the candidates will keep their debate message less partisan and technical, and more vision-oriented. "A lot of it is not going to come from specific 'does he know this number' or 'is that story precisely accurate,'" said Rasmussen. "It will be much more of a tone they convey: Does George Bush sound like his plan for Social Security reform really address all the concerns I have about changing that system, or does it really hit home? Is Al Gore really committed to changing things or will he stick with the status quo? It's more of a general attitude," said Rasmussen.
Another aspect of Tuesday's debate is that the candidates are expected to also convey "something about what they think the job of president is about and the direction they'd like to see the country go in," said Rasmussen.
But Zogby said he doesn't think the candidate's messages will stray much from what we've heard already. "I think you'll hear Bush try to capitalize on his tax cut and what it's going to mean for families," he said.
"I think you're also going to see (Bush) be in the demeanor of the 'compassionate conservative' again. And he's going to look for two or three one-liners to show that he has the heft, the depth," said Zogby.
Gore's strategy, in the estimation of Zogby, will be to remind voters, 'hey, my plan for education stacks up, and it doesn't bust the budget; my plan for prescription drugs doesn't end Medicare.' And you're going to see him emphasize an economic plan that he has that will create good jobs without busting the budget," said Zogby.
And, says Zogby, debate viewers may expect some panache Tuesday. "Demeanor-wise, you're going to see Gore try to be a bit more charming."
The Importance of the Aftermath
Rasmussen's research, along with a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, indicates that only a fraction of those crucial undecided voters will actually watch the debate. But both he and Zogby agree that Bush and Gore will be focused as much on how their performances are evaluated in the days following the debate as during the event itself.
"My guess is that the way the debate is talked about in the two or three days after it will probably have a bigger impact than the debate itself, barring something really dramatic," said Rasmussen. He noted the 1976 Ford/Carter debate, in which Ford earned much praise immediately following the debate. However, any support from the immediate post-debate reaction was muted following extensive media coverage in the days following the event of a debate gaffe by Ford; he had claimed that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union.
"There will be a lot of people who just hear about [the debate]," said Rasmussen. "They may hear about it in a baseball playoff game, they might hear a joke about a candidate, about what he said in the debate, or they might hear something about it on a morning radio news show. And those perceptions could be very, very important," he said.
Zogby agreed on the importance of post-debate reverberations. "It's going to be very important, just as with the conventions, that both candidates get the kinds of sound bites they need to appeal to these groups," said Zogby.
"The winner will be winning on perception," Rasmussen predicted.