Blogs > HNN > Why Are Undecided Voters Still Undecided? – Research Addendum

Oct 24, 2008 5:03 pm

Why Are Undecided Voters Still Undecided? – Research Addendum

Since writing my original essay on this subject two days ago, I have looked more carefully into the question of whether there has been professional research on the recurrent political phenomenon of “undecided voters” – i.e., research other than that reported by the Daily Show. I’ve discovered there has been, though not very much. One of the major recent studies has to do with cognition.

In an article entitled “Automatic Mental Associations Predict Future Choices of Undecided Decision-Makers,” published in the 22 August 2008 issue of the journal Science (subscription only), research psychologists Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, and Bertram Gawronski reported that undecided voters “sometimes have already made up their mind at an unconscious level, even when they consciously indicate that they are still undecided.” (See this summary.)

In a supporting commentary in the same issue of Science, “The Unseen Mind,” Timothy D. Wilson and Yoav Bar-Anan argue that respondents' answers to political pollsters’ questions “are highly suspect. Voters explain their reasons by relying on cultural and idiosyncratic causal theories that may bear little relation to the real reason for their preferences. . . . Pollsters should be equally skeptical of voters who say they are undecided, because they may have already made up their minds at an implicit level.”

I had conjectured in my original essay that one reason for the undecided-voter phenomenon was cognitive in nature – that undecided voters were people who had trouble making decisions about almost everything. The above studies suggest that many undecided voters have indeed made up their minds – but at an unconscious level. They lean one way or the other, but they don’t know that they have already made a decision.

An excellent"opinion" piece in the Los Angeles Times (12 October 2008) by Ezra Klein, “Undecided Voters?,” sums up some other research; for example:

“Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup Organization . . . reported after the 2004 election that they [undecided voters] tended to be less educated, more rural and somewhat older than most voters." [But compare this. ]

Klein continues: “Many of those who claim to be undecided are not. Some don't want to admit their preference. In their paper, ‘Swing Voters? Hah!’ political scientists Adam Clymer and Ken Winneg amassed substantial data suggesting that very few undecided voters are truly indecisive. Examining the 2004 election, Clymer and Winneg found that even the most hard-core of undecided voters were fairly predictable.”

An additional reason for the undecided-voter phenomenon is that the TV news media want to keep alive the apparent fiction that there are lots of undecided voters out there who are “swing voters.” This supposedly makes uncompetitive races competitive, thus increasing the drama of these races, encouraging us to watch TV coverage and punditry.

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More Comments:

Dennis Slough - 10/28/2008

Yikes! Don't shoot yourself. There's still a chance you can make something of yourself. You're still not *totally* worthless scum, according to you.

John D. Beatty - 10/28/2008

If there was someone running that we could vote for in good faith without holding our noses there would be few "undecided." As it is the grifters that are running aren't worth the bullet to put them out of our misery.

Jason Flanagan - 10/27/2008

Some excellent research on undecided or swing voters has been published recently. "The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns" by D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields (Published earlier this year by Princeton)is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating works. It not only changes the way we think about voter decision making and so-called "persuadable" voters, but also the way we understand the dynamics of presidential campaigning. It looks at how the targeting of persuadable voters has led to the increasing use of wedge issues in presidential campaigns. This targeting of very narrow groups of people (swing voters in states that candidates think they can win) and the use of wedge issues has troubling ramifications not only for presidential elections, but for American democracy.

Dennis Slough - 10/27/2008

Early voting is an interesting development. I'm starting to picture a day when most of the votes are cast well before the actual election day. If Klein (LA Times reference) is correct the "swing" votes cast on a first Tuesday in November will be recorded possibly weeks after the new president is selected. Then the so-called undecided will have as much voice as respect from their fellow citizens.