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Why Should Pollsters "Cringe" at the Undecided Vote? (Panagakis-Moore, cont'd.)


Nick Panagakis' response to my column on a different approach to measuring vote choice reflects, I believe, the current conventional wisdom, that a forced choice vote choice question is the best predictor of how voters will cast their ballots. This approach, Nick argues, "historically comes close to the actual outcome." Not only that, he "cringes" when he sees pollsters hedge their bets on a poll, by saying "candidate A is up by 9 points - but 30% could change their minds." He says that reporting such numbers "devalues polls."

 

But what is the "truth" of the matter? Are we not interested in accurately portraying what the electorate is thinking "today"? If so, how can we say, as CNN does, that 100 percent of voters have made up their minds with more than three months before the election? Or as Gallup has been telling us for the past two months, that an average of 95 percent of voters have already made up their minds? Or even, as most other pollsters say, that over 90 percent have made a choice?

 

Pollsters get away with producing such dubious numbers, I think, because most pundits take a schizophrenic approach to the polls. At one level, they treat the results as though they are the Holy Grail. At the next moment, they dismiss the numbers as being irrelevant at this time of the campaign season, saying that we need to wait until after the conventions before people begin paying attention to the election. Dan Rather's recent column encapsulates this sentiment, headlined as "Summer polls in the presidential campaign are pure folly."

 

If we are concerned about devaluing polls, we might want to think about giving an accurate portrayal of what the public is actually thinking (or not thinking) weeks and months before an election. The current vote choice question clearly does not reveal the extent of public indecision, and thus, I think, undermines the credibility of polls more generally.

 

I am not arguing that shortly before election day, in their last pre-election polls, pollsters should not press voters for their choices. I agree that in most elections, even the "undecided" voters have an inkling of whom they will support. Barring last minute media coverage that favors one candidate or the other, the faint-hearted leanings of these undecided voters usually turn out to be decent predictors of how they will act when they get in the voting booth. (Notable exceptions at the national level occurred in the 1948 and 1980 presidential elections, of course, not to mention the 2008 New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California primaries, among others).

 

Still, during the campaign leading up to the election, why should pollsters "cringe" at reporting that a large segment of the population remains undecided? In fact, that's just what CBS News has done, commendably in my view, when it headlined its latest poll results as "Poll: Obama Leads, But Race Fluid." Nick, it seems, would not favor such a headline, nor apparently would most other media pollsters - at least as indicated by their own reports.  

 

There may be better ways to get at voter indecision, other than asking first, if people have made up their minds. Andy Smith of the UNH Survey Center said he will be experimenting this election season with other approaches, which could include the names of the candidates, as well as asking voters who they expect to vote for in November (not "today"), with the tag line, or haven't they made up their minds yet? A follow-up question could probe their leanings, but at least up front, the question would explicitly allow for the undecided voter to indicate such a sentiment.

 

It seems pretty clear that the standard vote choice question sacrifices "truth" about the electorate during the campaign, whatever the question's utility in predicting results right before the election. The research task, I believe, is to find an approach that does not produce misleading results about the state of the electorate during the campaign, while still allowing pollsters to make as accurate predictions as possible right before election day.

 

Comments
jsh1120:

I'm intrigued by what I believe is the complexity of the "undecided" category, especially when it's measured months before an election.

Specfically, I think the problem lies in distinguishing "engaged" from "unengaged" "undecideds." Clearly,if I'm asked what I might want for dinner three months from now I may be "undecided" even if I have a generic preference for steak over a "big salad." That's quite different, however, from sitting in a restaurant with a waiter standing over me awaiting my decision for dinner. And it is very different to express my opinion about a dinner three months from now (a relatively costless decision) than to express the same preference to someone who is going to put a plate in front of me in fifteen minutes.

Marketing professionals responsible for predicting purchase decisions would never be satisfied with the sort of weak measurements we use to determine "likely voters" or "decided voters" unless the purchase decision were immediately relevant (or possible.)

I'd like to suggest that measurements of enthusiasm, attentiveness, and knowledge are far more relevant both in predicting behavior and in determining the "current state of the race" than forcing "leaners" to make a choice about something that both they and we know is a purely hypothetical decision.

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Undecided:

This makes sense to me.... one needs to measure the electorate at a point in time, and from that baseline then predictors for the election can be queried. I remember during the 1976 election (Carter vs. Ford) that I did not decide until the last moment. I found them equally matched, and so I chose the candidate based on who I liked better for First Lady. Why not? No one paid attention to vice-presidents then. Betty Ford turned out to have "problems"... but then again Carter was ineffective in his governance (good ideas but not good implementation)... but I always appreciated Rosalyn Carter.

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boskop:

based on the ebb and flow of the recent polls there is simply no oway around the fluid nature of this election and the fact that far more than 10% is always in transit so to speak.

to ferret out these folks, i'd ask this question:
"would you feel comfortable changing your vote in the run up to the election if need be?" if so, "does your present choice reflect your opinion thirty days ago or has it changed?"

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Decision is illusion. 90% of the electorate will decide their choice based on one of three factors - whether the candidate is a Republican or a Democrat, which candidate they identify with, and which candidate they "like" (ie their emotional reaction to the way the candidate speaks, looks, and behaves). The remaining 10% are not any smarter or more logical - they simply have yet to bond with either party or candidate, and feeling things about equal, key in to actual policy positions (or character evaluations) for decisioning purposes (unlike the rest of us, who listen to such items solely for the purpose of reinforcing the choices we've already made).

Most "leaners" are unlikely to change positions, in the same way that people who claim they'll "move to Canada" if the wrong candidate gets elected are unlikely to actually do so. In fact, a number of people who claim to be decided now will change their mind if a major gaffe breaks their sense of identification. In other words, when people switch candidates, some will have been "leaners" and some will have been "decided". Leaving leaners as "undecided" does little to model the actual population of voters who may change their minds (look at Dukakis's numbers if you want an indication). All polls can only measure the present; if you want an accurate picture of who is doing best at present, you can't leave out the population of leaners, because if the leaners were forced to enter a voting booth immediately they would almost certainly vote for their "lean" choice. Ignoring the leaners is an attempt the model possible future scenarios with incredibly weak data, especially this far out when plenty of current decideds will end up changing. I will grant you that it becomes more significant in October, when the voters have heard it all and little time is left to alter the bonds of identification. The chief use of summer polls, however, is to gauge where a candidate needs to spend his time and money and which demographics he needs to appeal to.

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