The Wily Undecided Voter

Undecided VoterThere’s been a bit of push back against the deification of undecided voters. For election cycle after election cycle, I’ve been wondering who these people are who can’t decide. After all, these are people who are supposedly in the middle. I can understand that a socialist would have a hard time deciding between the Democrat and Republican; but they wouldn’t; they’d just decide Peace & Freedom. I can understand that a fascist would have a hard time… Wait, no they wouldn’t; they’d just vote Republican. But who are these centrist voters who can’t tell whether Obama’s jobs program is better than Romney’s? After all, Obama’s jobs program will create 1.1 million jobs and Romney’s will create 87,000 jobs. Who could say which is better?

In 2004, This American Life did an episode on supposed swing voters. It was very good, but one part of it really bugged me. Ira Glass had a number of conversations with a Cincinnati doctor named James Hackett. Hackett was unhappy with Bush. But regardless of the arguments that he himself found compelling, he ended up voting for Bush. This I think is one of the two kinds of “undecided” voters: not undecided. In Hackett’s case, he was always going to vote for Bush, but he wanted to seem reasonable and open minded. This is increasingly true of Republicans. A good example of this is the Tea Party movement which is as red as can be but insists that they are independent.

The other kind of undecided voter is the low information voter. Last week on Real Time with Bill Maher, in his “New Rules” segment, Maher said, “If you’re one of the 5% of American voters who are undecided on who to vote for, it’s okay to admit: you don’t really give a shit.” Here’s the whole thing, which is funny and insightful:

Saturday Night Live gets straight to the heart of it:

Over the years, what I’ve noticed is that the undecided voters tend to break exactly as the decided voters. So if the polls indicate that Obama is beating Romney 50% to 40%, the undecideds will break the same and the final results will be Obama over Romney 56% to 44%. Regardless, the undecided votes will go roughly half and half. There have been many elections where I’ve wished it were otherwise, but that’s just the way it goes.

Ezra Klein has a good article this morning on WonkBook, Undecided voters probably won’t decide the election. He talks about some work by UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck that shows roughly this (and other interesting stuff). Klein sums up:

There’s little reason to believe that undecided voters in this campaign will break sharply toward one candidate. The votes of the undecideds seem to be roughly evenly split, and if any big news happens between now and the election, they’re likely to be the last to know about it, and the least interested in following up on it. If Obama is going to turn this into a rout, or if Romney is to salvage a win, it will probably require changing minds that are already made up, or increasing (or suppressing) turnout among base voters.

Which is what we already know. Now if we can just convince the networks, maybe we won’t have to keep hearing about the undecided voters. And the undecided voters will be happier too. I know it would really annoy me if people kept asking me for my opinions on Jersey Shore.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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