Who are the undecided voters?

Thanks to sophisticated polling techniques, presidential elections in the US have narrowed their attention to not just the few so-called ‘swing states’, but to the handful of undecided voters in those states who can swing an election either way. They are the players while the rest of us have become spectators. So who are these undecided voters that so much attention is lavished over?

Political scientists Larry M. Bartels and Lynn Vavreck looked at 10 surveys conducted from May through July and aggregated them to get a total of 10,000 voters and found that 592 of them (about 5% of the weighted sample) were undecided. The rest split 51%-49% in favor of president Obama, which means that of the total sample, the split was 48.5%-46.5% in favor of Obama.

These 592 undecided voters differ from those who have made up their minds (or are at least leaning one way or the other) in some unsurprising ways. For example, they are rather less knowledgeable about politics, and much more likely to say they follow news and public affairs “only now and then” or “hardly at all.”

But while undecided about how they are going to vote in this particular election, these voters do have some degree of prior party affiliation.

Only about 30% of them classified themselves as pure independents, not leaning towards either party, while 7% were not sure of their party affiliation. About 40% of them tended Democratic while 23% tended Republican. We see that if the 40% go back into the Democratic fold, then Obama ekes out a win, so this is really the target group that Mitt Romney has to aim to win over.

Most of these Democratic-tending undecided voters don’t seem to have strong negative feelings about Obama personally or his performance in office, while 60% already have an unfavorable view of Romney. It is here that Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan may hurt him since that is unlikely to endear that ticket to this particular group.


  1. Stevarious says

    It seems pretty unlikely to me that they will vote at all. It’s pretty hard getting people who actually care to get out and vote.

  2. Chiroptera says

    I thought that it was the conventional wisdom a couple of decades ago that the election will go to the candidate who can attract the undecideds. I thought the current conventional wisdom is that the election goes to the candidate who can most excite their party’s base to go out and vote.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Neither the article nor the CCAP site precisely spells out who these undecided are but I don’t get the impression that these are people who don’t care, but rather people who sort of care and have political inclinations but have not decided for this election.

  4. Stevarious says

    Caring and Voting are not synonymous. Plenty of people care and argue but can’t be bothered to actually vote on election day. Others are prevented from voting by bad laws or economic factors – if your boss won’t let you go vote, you don’t vote; if you don’t live near a polling station and don’t have a car, you don’t vote, etc.

    I really think this country would do well to adopt ‘mandatory voting’ like they have in Australia. Of course the republicans would never go for it – half of their business model involves getting as few people to vote as possible.

    As was publically stated by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), voter ID laws are intended specifically to prevent voters from voting so that the republicans can win more elections.

  5. smhll says

    It seems pretty unlikely to me that they will vote at all. It’s pretty hard getting people who actually care to get out and vote.

    Also, people claim that a lot of negative advertising tends to depress turnout. The campaign ads are already negative, and there’s more money where that came from.

  6. smrnda says

    A friend of mine lived in rural Tennessee. The bosses at the factory told everyone to go out and vote Republican, but the remote location and fact that you only had your own time on your 20 minute lunch break (out of a 12 hour shift) to vote meant that nobody got to.

  7. Art says

    The vast majority of people I know who claim to be independents are, in reality, committed to the GOP and/or the Tea Party. Talk to them after they have a few beers and/or assume you agree with them and their true colors come out. Often it is quite ugly.

    I’m not entirely sure why they don’t just ‘let their freak-flag fly’ but it seems to be that they don’t want to have to argue, debate, sometimes even just think deeply about, their positions.

    Claiming to be independent allows them to hold their beliefs without being confronted or questioned.

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