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We asked undecided voters in Pa. why they’re still unconvinced. We got a range of answers.

There’s an instinct to think of undecided voters as politically engaged moderates wrestling with policy contrasts. That is almost never the case. Most are just not paying attention yet.

Candidates will spend more than a year running for office but, in a tight race, the holdouts who make up their minds in the final two weeks can decide the winner.
Candidates will spend more than a year running for office but, in a tight race, the holdouts who make up their minds in the final two weeks can decide the winner.Read moreStaff Illustration / The Inquirer / Getty Images

The run-up to Pennsylvania’s midterm elections has been intense. The political stakes are high. The candidates evoke passionate responses — positive and negative. And the attack ads keep looping.

But for a chunk of voters in Pennsylvania — a large enough group to decide the key open Senate race — the decision on how to vote is still unclear.

“It’s a weird year,” said Jose Montaro, a 40-year-old real estate agent from Steelton in Dauphin County.

“Dr. Oz is an entertainer,” Montaro said. “Fetterman seems like an entertainer on social media. I look at our whole political climate as a circus right now, and I don’t have a lot of respect for it. I’m gonna vote because I believe in democracy ... but there’s no option that I like.”

Montaro, who is also undecided in the governor’s race, said he’ll do some research when Election Day gets closer, pray, and then go to the polls.

Right now? “It’s kind of an over-sensory overload.”

Candidates will spend over a year running for office, but, in a tight race, the holdouts who make up their minds in the final two weeks can decide the winner. In the 2016 presidential election, exit polls showed 15% of Pennsylvania voters decided in the final week. But in 2020, just 4% of voters made a call last minute.

In three polls taken in late September and released this month, from 8% to 10% of Pennsylvania voters were undecided on whom to vote for in the Senate race, and 7% to 13% were undecided in the governor’s race. In two surveys where voters were asked how they felt about a candidate, the percentage who were unsure or said they didn’t have enough information was a few points higher in both races.

In interviews with The Inquirer, a dozen undecided voters listed a range of reasons: They just haven’t tuned in yet, they disliked all the candidates, or they had made up their mind in one but not all of the races.

“There ... are voters who have spent no time thinking about this race because they’re busy with their normal lives,” said Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban. “And it’s not until the final two to three weeks before the election that something happens to make them think about politics.”

How many undecided voters are there?

Polls usually measure a sample of voters who are likely to vote, so a whole universe of registered voters who might or might not wind up voting may get screened out of polls.

The percentage of undecided voters varies poll to poll, based on how the survey asks voters about their preferences. Some force respondents to pick from a list of names, while others offer “undecided” or “I don’t know” as an option.

Berwood Yost, pollster for Franklin & Marshall College, said the number of undecided voters in recent polls is on par with past statewide elections a month out. (Though without an incumbent in either race, the fact that there aren’t more undecided voters compared with previous years is a little surprising, he said.)

Who are undecided voters?

Undecided voters tend to be more moderate or independent and less aligned with either major party, pollsters said. That doesn’t mean that they’re undecided for the same reasons, or that they’ll come around to the same decision.

There’s an instinct to think of undecided voters as politically engaged moderates wrestling with policy contrasts. That is almost never the case. Most are just not paying attention yet.

“There’s a reason campaigns spend all this money at the end,” Balaban said. “And ... bad campaigns make the mistake of spending too much money too early when insiders are paying attention as opposed to actual voters.”

An undecided voter

Carmen Walton, 39, of Lilitz, is an evangelical Christian who voted for Barack Obama and then Mitt Romney. Donald Trump started to sour her on the conservative political movement, and she’s felt torn between parties since.

“I feel like, as far as my family values go, I align more with the conservative end, but as far as social issues go, I’m kind of in between,” she said.

Walton, who has four kids, hasn’t been following the races closely yet. Her instinct, she says, is that she’s “not too keen on Oz,” but she wants to read up more. Doug Mastriano, she’s heard, is “a really scary Trump person.”

“So I guess I’ll vote for the other person?” she said. “But I just don’t know yet.”

Shapiro-supporting undecided voters

Josh Shapiro continues to have some of the highest favorable ratings in the races, and several undecided voters said they knew they wanted to support him but were unsure about other races.

Brian Costello, a 40-year-old disabled veteran in Tacony, likes the Democratic attorney general’s messaging on the opioid crisis.

In the Senate race, though, he’s unsure.

“I don’t really know too much about it, to be honest,” he said. “I’ll definitely vote, but I’m not sure which way I go. I’ve only seen negative things about Dr. Oz so ... maybe not for him?”

Karen Mamrak, 66, is a registered Republican in northern York County who tries to vote in every election.

“I want candidates to be open to listening to other people — not be so hard-line in their thoughts and power that they ... feel they can do anything they want without input,” she said.

Mamrak knows she’s not voting for Mastriano. His stance on abortion — he has said he would support a total ban without exceptions — played a role.

“That’s not right, particularly for those cases of rape or incest. ... I just think that’s horrible.”

In the Senate race, Mamrak thinks John Fetterman seems “too liberal,” but she doesn’t like Mehmet Oz either. “He’s not a true Pennsylvanian, I don’t care what he says. ... Living here for a year does not make you able to represent us.”

For Mamrak, all the talk about Pennsylvania deciding which party controls the Senate isn’t as motivating as picking the person who will best represent the state.

“It would be nice if we could change the balance in [Congress], because I’m definitely not a Nancy Pelosi fan, but I want somebody who is going to do something for us,” she said.

A Fetterman-supporting undecided voter

Jennifer Grazie, a pharmacy tech in Pittsburgh, is a registered Democrat who likes Fetterman for his stances on health care and his leadership in Braddock.

“I love that he integrated himself in the community there,” she said.

But in the governor’s race, Grazie doesn’t find either Shapiro or Mastriano appealing.

“I think there comes a point in time where I feel like you’ve been in politics so long you forgot what it’s like to be a commoner.”

Grazie admits she’s more aligned on policy with Shapiro, particularly on abortion, but she’s unsure if it’s enough to win her vote.

“I’m like, ‘Well, do I pick the lesser of two evils who I side with more on issues? Or do I just sit it out because I really don’t know and let the state decide?’”

A third-party voter

A lot of undecided voters are unaffiliated, and some wind up voting for a third-party candidate. That’s how Winifred Flynn, an independent from south-central Pennsylvania, is leaning.

“They’re all slandering each other,” Flynn said. “Nobody stands up and says, ‘If I’m elected, I will do this, and these are the things that are important to me.’”

Flynn, who has worked in carpentry and contracting, was disappointed with a lack of response from the Attorney General’s Office when she tried to report a bad contractor. But she doesn’t like Mastriano, either.

“He’s way too close to Trump,” she said.

Flynn was a lifelong Republican before switching to independent during Trump’s administration.

In the Senate race, Flynn said Fetterman’s background in Braddock seems like a positive, but she worries about the ads attacking him on crime.

“Is he letting all these felons go? There’s probably a whole lot of mistruth there, but I wouldn’t want to take a chance,” she said. “And Oz, he’s not even from Pennsylvania. And if he’s sanctioned by Trump, forget about him, too.”