An Uncertain Electorate

David Moore, author of The Opinion Makers: An Insider Reveals the Truth Behind the Polls, is a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and Managing Editor of the Gallup Poll. He’ll be guest blogging here all week.


THE UNCERTAIN ELECTORATE….In the latest Gallup tracking poll, Obama leads McCain by 6 percentage points, 48 percent to 42 percent, with 5 percent choosing another candidate, and just 5 percent undecided. If we could believe this poll, it’s an incredible phenomenon — with 12 weeks still to go before the election, no vice presidential candidates yet selected, and the major parties’ conventions still to come, 95 percent of the voters have already made up their minds whom to support!

Gallup is not alone in portraying mostly a decided electorate. Most other polls show only about 8 percent to 10 percent of the electorate unsure of their vote choice, though real world experience hardly corroborates that picture. The reason for the apparent commitment of most voters is that the pollsters typically ask who respondents would vote for “if the election were held today.” They know that if they asked who voters might choose in November, many would acknowledge that they haven’t yet thought seriously about the contest, and don’t know which candidate to support. And that, apparently, wouldn’t be too interesting in a news story.

The polling industry’s obsession with asking who voters would support “today” gives a misleading picture of the true state of the electorate. That fact is made clear by the the latest CBS News poll, which suggests that the size of the “uncommitted voter” group is much larger that what the Gallup tracking poll indicates.

The CBS poll also asks the standard polling industry’s forced-choice question, who would you vote for it the election were held today, and it found 13 percent undecided. But the poll followed up the standard question by asking whether voters who had selected a candidate had made up their minds, “or is it still too early to say for sure?” The results of that question show 39 percent of voters still uncommitted, three times the original number CBS found, and almost eight times what the Gallup tracking poll reports.

To be fair to Gallup and a few other polls, CBS is not alone in trying to measure the uncommitted vote by the use of a follow-up question to determine voting intensity. A Gallup poll at the end of June, for example, found 23 percent of the electorate uncommitted, almost half the size of what CBS currently measures. An ABC News poll found a somewhat larger uncommitted group, about 28 percent, but only after first reporting that 98 percent of the electorate had decided on a candidate.

Generally, it’s difficult to find data about the uncommitted voters, because the media typically emphasize the initial horserace figures — based on the election being held “today.” But if we want to know what voters are really thinking, we have to search deep into the news stories, or even examine the raw poll results, to see whether the poll has even tried to measure the undecided vote.

When the election is just days away, and the final pre-election polls ask who voters would support “if the election were held today,” the results are usually fairly accurate. After all, the election is almost “today,” and the vast majority of voters have made up their minds. But in the weeks and months leading up to the election, the standard forced-choice question does not give us an accurate picture of the electorate.

That the news media and their polls continue to play down, or ignore altogether, the true state of the electorate during the campaign is one of the enduring blights on the credibility of pre-election polls.