Members of the audience, undecided voters as identified by Gallup,...

Members of the audience, undecided voters as identified by Gallup, in their seats prior to the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. (Oct. 16, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

How can anyone be undecided at this stage of the presidential election? It boggles the mind.

Even if one pays little or no attention to politics, pieces of information seep in through peripheral vision and audio: a bulletin on the cellphone, a report on the car radio, a bit of a newscast caught at the beginning or end of another TV show, that pop-up story on an Internet page. Still, presidential tracking polls show somewhere between 5 percent and 7 percent of likely voters are undecided, and that amounts to millions of Americans.

This is not 2008, when people claimed (incorrectly, I thought) there was little difference between the two candidates. President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could not be farther apart on most issues. And any breathing, walking, working or homemaking American should know that by this point.

Obama is a mild progressive and Romney is an arch conservative (at least he was during the primary season) trying to move to the middle in the general election.

We do not live in France, where the campaign for the nation's top elected post is a blissfully short four months. Our election season is an unbearable 10 months long, if you date it from the beginning of the caucuses and primaries. In reality, it seems more like two years, as all national politicians start posturing for the campaign season midway into the presidential term.

The choice is pretty simple. If you want less government and presumably lower taxes, vote for Romney. If you believe government is the only way to properly educate and provide health care for the majority of people and to protect the environment and civil rights, vote to re-elect the president. Would-be voters who pay attention to the candidates' positions on public policy couldn't possibly be on the fence three weeks from the election. No debate, short of a massive misstatement, should change anyone's position.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, described the average undecided voter in a radio interview this week. He said that person is usually white and middle-aged. He said members of minority groups are much more likely to decide well in advance on the candidate they plan to support. Young voters and older voters also decide ahead of time. That still doesn't explain to my satisfaction why this particular group is less tethered to a particular candidate this close to Election Day.

Tuesday night's debate was widely seen as a draw, unlikely to change the minds of last-minute undecideds. But the first presidential debate sure did a striking job of drawing people into the Romney camp.

Before that debate, the president had surged ahead of Romney in national and battleground-state polls, by a comfortable margin of 5 points or more. Just before Tuesday night's debate, the candidates were neck and neck.

"Obama leads in states with 201 electoral votes, according to state polling averages compiled by the RealClearPolitics website," USA Today reported on Sunday. "Romney leads in states with 191 electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. Two-and-half weeks ago, RealClearPolitics gave Obama a lead of 265-191 in the Electoral College, in part because Ohio was considered a "likely Obama" state. Now Ohio is again a tossup." I've only seen one comment from an undecided voter that could possibly explain why people remain undecided this late in the race. One woman said she was undecided because she was not happy with either candidate. That explanation rings true. Each candidate this year is fabulously flawed, even from the perspective of voters who should be stalwart supporters of one or the other.

So this will be yet another "hold your nose and vote for so-and-so" election, just like all but one election has been for me since I came of voting age. How sad. But it does help explain why millions of Americans have not yet made up their minds.

Bonnie Erbe, a TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.