What does the profile of the average American “undecided” voter look like — especially this close to election day? It’s a question asked by many people who closely follow politics, usually incredulous that a citizen could still not have chosen sides at this point, despite the tsunami of political ads and media coverage. In campaign 2012, of course, the topic has even become ripe for satire, as Saturday Night Live recently demonstrated.
As a general rule, political scientists find that undecided voters are less involved in politics, less informed on issues, less attentive to news — and much harder to reach through media streams. Many vote in presidential election years but not in lower-profile mid-term elections; and many will, if asked, describe themselves as independent voters.
On this topic, an element of analytical caution is in order. It is worth remembering that, in September 2012, it was assumed by many in political circles that the electorate had hardened in its views and there was an increasingly narrow band of undecided voters. Yet, movement in the post-presidential debate polls strongly suggested that prior survey research underestimated the size of the undecided population – or at least those who were “persuadable.”
A Washington Post poll conducted Oct. 10-13 — a random survey of 1,252 adults, with an error margin of 3.5 percentage points — suggested that 9% of likely voters say there is still a “chance” they would change their mind. But of those, 7% said such a switch remains “unlikely.” As of late August, the Post’s poll found that 15% of registered voters said there was still a chance they would change their minds; and 19% expressed similar sentiments in a July poll.
UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck has been following trends among a large group of American voters throughout 2012, and she’s found that undecided voters make up roughly 4% to 5% of the electorate. About 60% of this group in this election cycle are women. (See Katharine Q. Seelye’s piece in the New York Times on female swing voters.) Vavreck and political scientist Larry Bartels provided a detailed snapshot of partisan leanings of undecided voters several months before the election. As Vavreck told NPR in October, the issue isn’t so much indecisiveness or confusion as available time to focus on politics: “It isn’t that they’re looking at Mitt Romney and looking at Barack Obama and weighing them. They’re not looking yet.” She notes that among the group of voters she’s studied, roughly 7% have changed their mind over the course of the year, moving from Romney to Obama, or vice versa.
Although undecided voters on average may be less politically informed, “The Monkey Cage” political science blog points out that some undecided voters have strong partisan leanings and well-formed views on issues: “One of the stupider things that people say about undecided voters is that they’re stupid.” (See related posts at that blog: “How Will the Undecideds Break?” and “A Little More on How Undecided Voters Might Break.”) And many voters in general display low information when asked about politics and policy (in such knowledge tests, a key variable is whether local or national questions, or both, are put to voters).
Several recent pieces of journalistic analysis provide insights related to this subject: Ben White’s “Meet the Undecided Voter,” at Politico; Ezra Klein’s article “Why Undecided Voters Won’t Be Deciding this Election,” at Bloomberg View; and Adam Davidson’s “Vote Obamney!” in The New York Times Magazine.
A 2008 academic analysis of the issue, “What Exactly Is a Swing Voter? Definition and Measurement” (PDF) — part of the book The Swing Voter in American Politics by William G. Mayer of Northeastern University — can provide additional historical perspective. The findings of the paper, which analyzes American National Election Studies survey data over the period 1972-2004, include:
A related 2012 study by the same author, “The Disappearing — but Still Important — Swing Voter,” provides additional insights on the subject.