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How Cable News Chooses the Undecided Voter

Kerry Ladka
Kerry Ladka

But experts say these hard-to-find people are not always great on the air: "Sometimes it's hard to pull information out of them."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Forget Candy Crowley or Martha Raddatz — the breakout TV stars of the presidential election have turned out to be the so-called “undecided voters.” Consider Kerry Ladka, the 61-year-old Long Island resident who stumbled through a debate question Oct. 16 for President Obama about the terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans.

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Ladka, a registered independent who told a Gallup screener that he liked the president’s health care initiative but was disappointed in his handling of the economy, admits that he was “shocked” and “terrified” when CNN’s Crowley called on him. But he says his 15 minutes of post-debate fame – including a Saturday Night Live spoof in which he was played by Tom Hanks – was “so much fun. I wish I could do it all over again.” So do the cable news networks. Ladka has since made multiple appearances on CNN and Fox News, serving as a surrogate of sorts for a nation seemingly divided between two candidates. But now that he’s decided to vote for Obama, a choice he came to after the final foreign policy debate Oct. 22, TV appearances have pretty much dried up — leaving him to suspect that his undecided status was the only attraction for TV pundits.

“I think everybody was trying to get me to go on so they could turn me,” he says.

He made two appearances on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News program, most recently on Oct. 23, when Van Susteren asked him which issue would decide his vote. “I said probably the economy,” recalls Ladka. “And she said, ‘Well in that case you’re probably leaning toward Gov. [Mitt] Romney.’ I said, ‘No, Greta, not really.’ And I think at that moment she totally lost interest in me.”

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Participants in the town hall debate were asked to prepare multiple questions, with Crowley selecting the best one from each while advising all of them to be prepared to be called upon. They were subject to Secret Service background checks and sequestered all day at the Garden City Hotel on Long Island, says Ladka. (“The Secret Service kept an eye on you all day. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without a Secret Service guy.”)

News organizations are leery of those claiming to be undecided this late in the presidential race.

“We try to find them in a way that somebody else who validated them as an undecided before they knew they were going to get a chance to be on television,” says NBC News political director Chuck Todd. That means relying on NBC News’ own pollsters, who have ongoing contact with focus groups of undecided and swing voters.

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Consulting firms look for voters who have not previously participated in focus groups, says Missy Egelsky, vp at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which specializes in political polling and campaign strategy for Democratic candidates. “We eliminate them if they’ve participated in any focus groups in the last six months,” says Egelsky, who adds that undecided voters may not be the best television guests. “They’re not the most eloquent, and sometimes it’s hard to pull information out of them.”