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How will the debates sway the undecideds?

By Steve Krakauer, Special to CNN
updated 4:58 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night. As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wednesday night is the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney
  • Steve Krakauer: The four upcoming debates can make a huge difference
  • He says both campaigns try to sway the undecided, unsatisfied and late deciding voters
  • Krakauer: Expect drama to begin in the election season finale in Denver

Editor's note: Steve Krakauer is a senior digital producer for CNN/U.S.

(CNN) -- "Saturday Night Live" had some fun recently at the expense of undecided voters. Bill Maher took it a step further on his HBO show "Real Time," calling those who have yet to make up their minds in the presidential election "ignorant."

The jokes may be funny, but both campaigns are taking the final phase of the election season very seriously.

The stakes are high in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, set for Wednesday night in Denver. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said so aptly over the weekend, "This whole race is going to be turned upside down come Thursday morning."

Opinion: Obama, light a cig; Romney, throw deep

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That's not just Jersey bluster. Both Obama and Romney are hoping to land a knockout punch -- a moment where they can break through for good. For viewers everywhere, expect great drama.

Undecideds

The notion that the final month of the election may not matter is, well, ignorant. Presidential debates can make a difference.

Opinion: Swing voters want to hear specifics

Let's look back to 2000. The final debate was "enough to turn a neck-and-neck race into a solid lead for GOP Texas Gov. George W. Bush" over Al Gore.

What did it?

"The debate appears to have made Republicans more enthusiastic about voting while turning some Democrats away from the polls," according to a CNN poll at the time.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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Photos: From the campaign trail Photos: From the campaign trail

Same thing in 2004. After the second presidential debate of the cycle, CNN wrote that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry "appears to be holding the ground he gained against President Bush after the first presidential debate." It tightened a race that was at one point looking like a Bush runaway. (True, Bush won most of electoral votes, but the difference in popular votes was within 3 percentage points.)

Maher and SNL can poke fun at the undecided voters, but these people matter -- especially in a tight race like the one between Obama and Romney -- since they make up a small but solid percentage of the electorate.

The undecideds will have three more chances to make a decision, including a debate on October 16 that will be moderated by "State of the Union" anchor Candy Crowley.

Unsatisfieds

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Recently, 40% of Americans "say they are not too or not at all satisfied, marking the lowest level of candidate satisfaction since the 1992 presidential election." That's a lot of Americans who aren't ready to enthusiastically embrace a candidate or start convincing their friends that their choice is the right one.

What about the last presidential election? In 2008, 72% of voters said they were satisfied with the choices, perhaps because both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were dynamic.

What does this mean for 2012? Namely, that a big voting bloc is waiting for the candidates to prove their worth.

Opinion: Why debate is crucial for Obama, too

The unsatisfieds are voters who feel their needs are not being met by the campaign stump speeches and talking points. CNN's Halimah Abdullah took a look at these "slivers" of voters. Abdullah profiled a man who voted for Obama in 2008 but has grown disillusioned. This man has a specific list of items that he finds politically appealing, but neither campaign has satisfied him so far. He plans to tune in to the debates which may sway him.

Late deciders

Like the unsatisfied voters, there is a group of voters who haven't started to pay attention to the race.

They're not glued to the 24-hour news cycle of cable TV or the blogosphere. They're not remotely as invested as the inside-the-beltway crowd. But they do vote, and the debates are a critical last-minute stop for them.

Opinion: Will candidates let returning troops fall off the fiscal cliff?

In the 2004 election, which at first looked like a big Bush victory before the debates in the last month, 10% of voters said they decided in the final 30 days, and Kerry captured 54% to Bush's 44% of this group.

Similarly, in the 2008 race, 15% of the voters made their decision in the last month, with more than 50% going for Obama. In 1996, Clinton received more of the last-minute deciders.

Persuadables

There's one more category of people who Obama and Romney will be looking to lock up during the debates. These are the persuadable voters.

They are voters who lean one way or the other but aren't sure whether they will cast a ballot.

In the latest CNN poll, a large percentage of respondents fell into this category. Among Obama supporters, 26% of likely voters "moderately" support him while 30% of registered voters "moderately" support him. Among Romney supporters, 28% of likely voters "moderately" support him and 35% of registered voters support him.

These numbers are not insignificant. In a race that involves both rallying the base and attracting independents, especially in the swing states, turning moderate support to strong support as well as registered voters to likely voters can be a key to victory.

2012 finale

Like any election, this one is defined by key moments. Certainly, Romney's victory in the primary was one. Mitt and Ann Romney's speeches at the Republican National Convention -- and, likewise, Barack and Michelle Obama's at the Democratic National Convention -- were as well.

Since the conventions Democrats have gained ground and a secretly taped video of Romney's offhand comments about 47% of Americans not paying taxes has surfaced. It would be surprising if Obama doesn't allude to Romney's comment in some way, even if in passing.

Opinion: Romney's best bet is to be Mr. Fix-it

On the foreign policy front, a terrorist attack in Libya on September 11 left a U.S. Ambassador dead, and questions remain glaringly unanswered regarding the Obama administration's handling of security in Libya. Romney is expected to bring up this issue.

Back in late February was the "season finale" of the primary debates, which in retrospect seemed like the ultimate reality show with more twists and turns than a "Real Housewives" reunion. Now we get the season premiere of the general election debates with four highly anticipated episodes before the 2012 series finale. The comedy shows can have their fun -- but the real drama begins tonight in Denver.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Krakauer.

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