Six undecided voters in six key demographics in six battleground states
We met them through deeply drawn profiles, photographic portraits, video and data
Now, less than a day before the election, have they made up their minds?
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They represent a sliver of the electorate yet could still hold the key to the Oval Office.
In a contest that’s already the most expensive in history, we set out to meet the men and women whose choices are so highly prized: the undecided voters.
They represent six key groups in the key swing states where their votes matter most:
A millennial in New Hampshire. A Catholic in Ohio. A long-term unemployed man in Nevada. A Latino in Florida. A single woman in Virginia. An evangelical in Iowa.
We introduced you to them through deeply drawn profiles accompanied by photographic portraits, videos and data visualizations that illuminate the nexus between real life and politics – the emotional terrain that determines how these ordinary Americans could decide the election.
With less than a day left before the election, we caught up with them to see if they’ve made up their minds – and how they came to their decision. Three told whom they’re voting for, two wouldn’t say and one – well, she’s still undecided.
The Millennial: Imagining he’s the candidate
The last few months have been especially busy for Tyler York. He’s worked 60 hours a week between his three jobs, and he welcomed two nephews into his already big, bustling family.
But the 25-year-old spent a lot of time thinking about the election, too, trying to decide how to decide. He watched the debates and talked to supporters of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but he wasn’t satisfied with anybody’s answers.
“People my age, people generations older … I’ve realized that they don’t truly know why they’re voting for their guy,” he said. ” ‘You should vote for me because the other guy’s bad’ isn’t really educating anybody on the issues.”
A colleague suggested this: Imagine you are the candidate. What are the issues most important to you? What is your stance? And which of the real-life candidates lines up best? Not perfectly, but best?
He spent hours researching the candidates’ ideas on foreign policy, a subject he’s passionate about after traveling overseas and making friends among the large refugee community around Manchester, New Hampshire.
He read up on energy and the environment, which sparked his interest after teaching a sustainability class at a private school. He was stunned by how little information he found about education; there’s a lot of talk about its importance, but no vision from candidates, he thinks. And he studied their stances on women’s health, gender pay disparities and same-sex marriage.
York, the undecided millennial, became York, the decided voter – but he doesn’t want to say who he’ll support. Sifting through so many out-of-context attacks and meme-making one-liners made him wish for clearer facts, not more noisy opinions.
He still identifies as an independent and can’t imagine himself volunteering for a campaign or cause in the future. The moment you do, he said, you stop listening to other sides’ points of view, or everyone thinks you do. Obama and Romney are often pretty similar, he thinks. York’s not so sure the divisions in politics and parties are real. It’s just that loud arguments and snappy comebacks get attention.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for any candidate to bring people together, he said.
“If it was a legitimate difference or true barrier, it would be one thing,” York said. “But because it’s manufactured, it feels like ‘I’m not supposed to agree with you.’ “
York said he’ll spend the days before the election talking to trusted friends and family members whose votes are going the opposite way. He’s not sure they could change his mind, but he wants to listen.
“I want to know why they feel so strongly in that direction,” he said. “I hope to hear an eloquent argument of why they feel that way.
“I don’t need to be reassured of my own opinion. It takes a lot more than watching news or reading articles (to make the decision.) Self-reflection is the most important part.”
He’s making decisions for himself, too. By this time next year, he still expects to be working all three of his part-time jobs. He’s enjoying them, so why stop? He doesn’t think he’ll still be living above his parents’ garage, though. He plans to have a stable income for more than a year by then, and he’ll have saved for a healthy down payment on a place of his own – if he decides to buy.
But he’s still not sure he wants to make the commitment.
The Catholic: Looking for the truth
Mary Roberts usually waits until she’s attended rallies for both political parties to make up her mind about how she’ll vote. Living in the battleground state of Ohio, she has a greater chance of doing that than most Americans – except for this year.
That’s because someone recently hit her car, and it was totaled. Now she attends physical therapy and needs a cane, which has left the normally active 67-year-old feeling frustrated. It’s also slowed her decision-making process.
“I tried to go to (Ohio State University) one day since both candidates were having rallies there,” Roberts says. “But I couldn’t get close enough to comfortably walk. I’m so disappointed.”
Which means, just days from this year’s election, she still hasn’t made up her mind.
“I’m close, real close,” she says.
Instead, she must rely on the information that comes to her.
“Let me count,” Roberts says, as she flips through her stack of mail. “I’ve got seven different political mailers just today.”
She doesn’t mind the mail, nor does she mind the calls – except when there are so many they fill up her voice mail and her family can’t leave a message.
“And I’d love to watch a game show without the 50 political ads,” she says. “My sister complains she feels neglected living in Georgia. But the ads are so negative, I tell her she’s lucky.”
Roberts reads several newspapers to follow the campaign. She watched the debates closely.
“I think President Obama made a stand, finally with that second one, and I’m so glad. He sounded kind of tuned out before,” she says. “Romney sounds wishy-washy saying one thing to one group and then one thing to another. I can’t figure out some of the promises he made.”
Romney’s disparaging comments about the poor at an earlier campaign event disturbed her.
“What kind of ignoramus thinks people want government help? Sometimes they just need it,” Roberts says. “My family isn’t in that 47% now, but growing up we needed help. What would we have done without it?”
She’s still concerned, though, about the president’s effectiveness.
“You know, I’d hoped he’d make the economy better, and I do think he is sincere,” Roberts says. “I think he has tried to be honest with the public, but I am still not sure if he can pull us out of this mess.”
Several people in her Columbus circle have hoped to bring her around. Many parishioners at her church read about Roberts on CNN. One day, they surrounded her.
“I was coming out of Mass and a man who saw my story talked to me about why I should vote for President Obama,” Roberts says. “Soon a crowd gathered and people kept saying things like, ‘I know you have heard this and that, but don’t believe it. Now I’m going to tell you the truth about him.’
“I always like when people start a sentence with, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth.’ I really start to listen then. But there wasn’t any Romney supporter there. I would have liked the truth about him, too.”
For now, Roberts will keep an open mind.
She already has Election Day plans. She and a neighbor like to be there right when the polls open and then go to breakfast. She signed up to be a poll watcher, too. Later she and her family will watch the returns at a sports bar.
“I like the multiple TVs and can get some wings.”
Even if she hasn’t quite made up her mind, for Roberts – who grew up secretly encouraging African-Americans in the Deep South to register to vote during the height of segregation – Election Day is still something to celebrate.
The Long-Term Unemployed: Casting an enthusiastic ballot
Joe Stoltz tuned in to the presidential debates listening keenly for specifics on how to improve the economy from both Obama and Romney.
But in the end, it was an exchange over something that happened thousands of miles away that helped turn Stoltz from undecided voter to one who felt secure in his choice.
In their second verbal tangle, Romney went after Obama by claiming that the president did not refer to the U.S. Consulate attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi as an act of terror and that the following day, he was back on the campaign trail.
Obama came back strong, Stoltz says.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama responded.
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
It was the first time in the campaign that Stoltz saw fire in Obama.
“He was forceful,” Stoltz says. “He looked right at Romney and was to the point.”
Stoltz voted for Obama in 2008 because he offered hope and change.
But after four years of economic gloom that left Stoltz, a flooring business owner in Reno, Nevada, without any jobs, he wants a leader. He liked that Romney brings business experience to the table, but in the end he felt Obama was the national leader he could trust.
He also liked how Obama addressed the importance of education – even in the third debate which focused on foreign policy – in answering a question about America’s role in the world.
That was an issue high on Stoltz’s list of priorities; he just started college with the help of a federal grant.
“That third debate sunk it all the way in for me – since I am in school and Obama was focused on education,” Stoltz says.
There was one other factor that helped sell Stoltz on Obama: Bill Clinton.
Stoltz, a big Clinton fan, loved that the former president was stumping for Obama. America did so well under Clinton, and if he thinks Obama’s the one who will get the nation back on track, then that’s worth something.
“He was just so passionate about it,” Stoltz says of Clinton.
So after months of indecision, Stoltz drove up to Truckee Meadows Community College, where he enrolled this fall to get his own life back on track, and before his keyboarding class, he cast his ballot. Enthusiastically.
The Latino Voter: Watching the debates sealed the deal
For weeks, Maria Lopez Reeves had been leaning toward voting for Romney.
His family values and his convention speech nearly swayed her.
In July, the lifelong Democrat “liked” the Republican nominee’s page on Facebook. In August, she told CNN she felt Obama hadn’t delivered on his 2008 campaign promises. She said she was “listening very attentively” to what Romney had to say.
But she remained undecided. In September, she heard Romney say words that stuck in her mind all the way to the voting booth.
“There are 47% of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” Romney said.
“My job,” he continued, “is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
He made the comments at a private fund-raiser in Boca Raton, Florida.
Reeves saw them spelled out in the closed captioning on her TV screen 180 miles away. In the living room of her rental house in Kissimmee, Florida, she watched a nightly newscast report on the now-infamous leaked video.
“When I saw him, behind closed doors, it was a private conversation,” Reeves says. “The true him was there.”
And what she saw made her cringe.
“I did not like being part of the 47%. That’s an insult to so many people out there,” says Reeves, who relies on government disability benefits to make ends meet. “People like me, Hispanics on disability, Social Security, retired people, military people, all kinds of people. We pay taxes on merchandise, property taxes on cars. We contribute just as much as anybody else does. We don’t get that many breaks.”
Despite her reservations about Obama, Romney didn’t seem to be looking out for her best interests, she says.
Watching the debates sealed the deal.
She listened to what Obama and Romney said and also paid close attention to how they said it.
A decade ago, Reeves’ eardrums burst, leaving her legally deaf. At first, she relied on reading lips to understand what people said. Now, a cochlear implant helps her hear, but she still pays close attention to body language.
“Eyes and facial expressions tell a lot,” she says. “You can tell when someone’s acting.”
To Reeves, Obama seemed sincere.
“I looked at Mitt and it’s like he was a statue up there, a puppet going through a speech that was made for him,” she says. “He just didn’t seem real to me, he really didn’t.”
Last week, on the way home from a doctor’s appointment, Reeves stopped by a library in Celebration, Florida, to cast her ballot during early voting.
She no longer had any doubts about which candidate she supported, or which candidate would support her.
“It’s too scary,” she says, “too risky, letting someone like Romney take over.”
Reeves says she voted for Obama.
The Single Woman: Staying true to her word
Unmarried women make up one of America’s fastest-growing demographics. They account for a quarter of the voting population, and a disproportionate number of them live in Alexandria, Virginia – a city in one of the highly coveted swing states.
For all these reasons, Alexandria’s unmarried and undecided Laura Palmer, 36, became a clamored-for commodity this election season.
But the former lawyer, who served in 2008 as a political appointee to the Bush administration, has made it her mission to rise above conflict, focus on positivity and be true to herself. Now a licensed hypnotherapist and practitioner of energy medicine, she believes it’s time for the country’s leaders to do the same.
She stayed mum about whom she voted for in 2008 and vowed she wouldn’t divulge her decision this year. She’s staying true to her word; not even her closest friends will know who’s earned her ballot.
“I don’t think it matters,” says Palmer, who made her choice after the debates. “I don’t mean that my vote doesn’t matter. Every vote counts.”
But in her view, there’s nothing that can be accomplished in discussing such a personal choice. While the passions of a heated political season may have driven people apart, she’d rather focus on the future and what might be possible – not just for the president, no matter who wins, but for those taking office in Congress.
“I hope whoever stays in power or moves into power, however it plays out, I hope there will be tremendous effort to reach across the aisle,” she said. “I hope they make an effort to work together. It’s the only way our country can move forward in a meaningful way.”
The Evangelical: Finding his decision in the Bible
Rob Seyler, a Bible school teacher who typically votes Republican, was wary of backing a Mormon for president.
Seyler had thought about staying home on Election Day but says studying the Bible suggested that was a bad idea.
“God would not support his people taking a passive role in a nation’s government,” he said by e-mail from just outside Des Moines, Iowa. “In fact, Hosea 8:4 shows that God was at times displeased with Israel’s choices for leadership – which shows me that he holds his people responsible for electing proper leaders.”
Seyler is still wary of giving a Mormon such a prominent perch. But he thinks Romney, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will “move our country in a direction that God would favor.”
That’s especially true when it comes to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, two issues at the top of Seyler’s list of political causes. Though the teacher caused a stir at his Baptist high school by painting Obama’s silhouette onto his classroom wall, Seyler is disappointed the president hasn’t done more to stop abortion and that he personally came out for legalized same-sex marriage.
Romney once supported abortion rights and gay rights but has become rigorously anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage in the last decade.
Seyler watched the first presidential debate and was impressed by Romney’s performance. But the teacher’s decision to vote for the Republican nominee was more a result of “contemplation, study and prayer.” Seyler says the process made him realize that Obama talks like a Christian but that his take on issues such as abortion and marriage run counter to Seyler’s read on the Bible.
“Ultimately, I think talk is cheap,” Seyler says, before citing Scripture again. “James and 1 John say that faith should be evidenced by action. And his actions do not clearly demonstrate a legitimate Christian faith.”
“In essence,” Seyler wound up reasoning, “I am choosing between two non-Christians.”
Seyler also recognizes the limits of his choice. America’s strength is more about the nation’s moral and spiritual state, he says, over which the commander in chief has only so much sway. That gives him hope for the country’s ability to move forward after a deeply divided election.
“Ultimately, no politician will ever truly solve our problems, he says. “While we elect and support men to lead our country, we must realize that these politicians are only stewards of the world God has created and is sovereign over.”
CNN’s Jamie Gumbrecht, Jen Christensen, Moni Basu, Catherine E. Shoichet, Jessica Ravitz and Dan Gilgoff contributed to this report.