by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

At each presidential debate, the news channels corral a group of undecided voters, arm them with special remotes that instantaneously record their positive or negative reactions and then track the results to see which way they are leaning in response to various remarks. Graphed in real time across the bottom of the screen, you can tell what messages are resonating and which are a turn-off.

While this is a fascinating study in how language can affect opinion, my main question is: Who the heck are these undecided voters? After what seems like three years of campaigning, advertising, policy debates, phone calls, door hangers and news coverage, how can anyone be undecided at this point?

Regardless of their ambivalence toward the two tickets, the undecided voters seem determined to make it to the polls on Nov. 4. What they lack in decisiveness, they are apparently trying to make up by being punctual.

And with the presidential race being so tight – combined with the way the electoral college system can magnify a small margin of victory in a few states into a clear electoral win – the media are focusing on undecided voters as the ones who will determine the outcome of the election.

Approximately 5 to 10 percent of the likely voters in the so-called “battleground” states claim to be undecided. Undecided voters are different than independent voters – voters who don’t naturally have strong party affiliations. Most independent voters have made up their minds by now.

So what will help the undecideds decide? Is it information? In the age of the Internet, anyone who has a question about either candidate can get it answered within minutes. Or if they are not yet connected to the Internet, undecided voters can get their questions answered by simply calling one of the hundreds of McCain and Obama offices across the country.

Many undecideds claim “neither candidate excites me.” This has to be one of the most exciting campaign seasons in a long time. What type of excitement are they looking for anyway? I guess Paris Hilton should have made a run for it after all.

Other undecided voters simply push off the decision, saying they will make the decision once they are in the voting booth. One wonders what political calculus takes place at that point: Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?

What is the tipping point for the undecided voter? Perhaps if they see just one more negative campaign commercial, they will be able to decide? Or perhaps one more phone call around dinnertime from a computer or a campaign supporter? Could it be that these feckless voters are the root cause of all these calls and negative ads?

But maybe the undecided voter is just a myth. According to a recent study published in Science, most self-proclaimed undecideds have actually made up their minds at an unconscious level.

“It’s not that people are lying to the pollsters,” said researcher Bertram Gawronski. “It’s that they may not consciously recognize the automatic associations that influence their decisions.”

By studying the reaction of undecided voters to various images from a campaign, Bertram found he could predict with a high degree of accuracy how they would eventually vote. So while the voter couldn’t articulate his or her decision, it had – at some level – already been made.

Of course, there are also the faux-undecideds – folks who call in to Sean Hannity and similar talk shows feigning that they have just become convinced by one of the attack ads.

After repeating the attack and explaining why this convinced them that they “can’t trust Obama,” they are congratulated by the host for making such a wise choice. Perhaps planted by the GOP, or perhaps people just wanting to get on the radio, these fakes try to show the way to the undecided masses. As if anyone who listens to Sean Hannity is undecided – his listeners drank the Kool-aid a long time ago and are onboard the “stop Obama/Hillary express,” as he has called his program for over a year now.

So why are the campaigns even bothering with the undecideds?

If they are truly undecided, the cost to persuade them is very high. And anyone whose opinion can be changed by just an ad or phone call might change their mind again after the next TV commercial. It might be more accurate to classify undecideds as “random voters.”

Most campaigns are shifting focus from persuading voters to get-out-the-vote efforts where their money and time are better spent. Hopefully if enough of us “decideds” show up on Nov. 4, we can drown out the effect of any of our undecided friends.