Basics of the Undecided Vote

While we are dealing with factual problems underlying a lot of strategic spin this (and every) year, I’ll note Ezra Klein’s brief but illuminating Bloomberg column on undecided voters:

This election will probably be decided by a tiny fraction of the electorate in eight or nine states. The undecided voters in those states are popularly portrayed as people who just can’t make up their minds. But that’s not quite right. They aren’t so much “undecided” as uninterested and, frankly, uninformed; in political-science parlance…they are “low information” voters.

It’s worth stopping here to clarify something: “uninformed” does not mean “dumb.” We’re all uninformed about certain topics. You wouldn’t believe how little I know about, say, baseball. I’m vaguely aware that it happens, and that it culminates in a World Series, but I can’t tell you who won last year, or who’s in contention this year. Baseball just isn’t something I pay attention to.

Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that uninformed voters have roughly the same relationship to politics that I have to baseball.
“They are lower on political information, for sure. That’s a function of being not that interested and not paying attention,” she said. “It’s not that they can’t comprehend the information, or that they’re at a balancing point and can’t decide. They’re just not dialed in. They’re not getting all the information you or I are getting.”

After providing some of Vavreck’s unsettling data on how little information low-information voters have about politics and government, Ezra notes the same factors that make these folk “tuned out” to begin with will greatly inhibit efforts to persuade and/or mobilize them to vote:

To people personally invested in politics, the homestretch of the campaign appears loaded with the kind of political information that could change voter opinions. There are debates, a flood of ads, inevitable gaffes, the crush of election news — maybe even an October surprise or two.

But undecided voters are precisely those least likely to tune in to the debates, which helps explain why debates typically have little effect on elections. They’re the least likely to care about a gaffe — or even to know when one has occurred. They’re more likely to throw out political mail and tune out political ads. If they live in a swing state, they’ve already been buffeted by — and proved immune to — months of commercials and phone messages.

Add in the fact that undecided voters seem to “lean” towards each of the two candidates in roughly equal proportions, and the idea that there’s electoral gold in them thar precincts gets pretty dicey.

Now it’s true that in the case of that rarest of beasts–the certain-to-vote high-information citizen who is truly undecided–persuading him or her across the line from one column to another has a lot of relative value, for the obvious reason that such a “flip” produces a net gain of two votes. It’s difficult to obtain data on the size or views of that slice of the electorate until very, very late, if ever. But if anyone is the object of alleged “game changing” developments in the last few weeks, it’s these voters. Beyond that, what you see is what you get, and it’s all about making sure voters who have already made up their minds actually get to the polls and register their preferences.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.