With a week left in the campaign, all eyes are on the “undecideds” – the 7-10% of voters who say they as yet do not know for whom they will vote. Keep in mind that if current polling averages are accurate, McCain would need to win a significant chunk of these undecideds to make this race competitive, assuming that he can’t peel off existing Obama supporters. So, how should we allocate these undecideds? Keep in mind that as late as a day before the 2004 presidential election, fully 3% of people remained undecided. And pollsters made different decisions on how to allocate those undecideds when projecting the final vote. For example, Gallup indicated that in previous years undecideds almost always break for the challenger. So in 2004 they allocated 2% to Kerry, 1% to Nader, and none to Bush. Obviously that rule of thumb doesn’t apply this year, since there is no incumbent running. Assuming that at least 3% remain undecided in the remaining days, how are they likely to break on Election Day?
It would help if we knew who the undecideds are. Fortunately, Pew has provided some demographic information in their latest survey (http://people-press.org/report/465/mccain-support-declines). Subject to all the usual caveats about polling uncertainty, what do the data show?
Based on demographics , the undecideds look more like potential McCain voters than Obama supporters. Not surprisingly, the undecideds show a generally lower level of interest in the election than do Obama or McCain supporters. More than half (51%) don’t call themselves either Democrats or Republicans, compared to roughly 28% of voters overall who describe themselves as independents. And fewer than half (48%) report having voted in the primaries. So these are not strong partisans. But here are the key statistics in my view: the undecideds are “less educated, less affluent, and somewhat more likely to be female than the average voter. Nearly half of undecided voters (48%) say they attend religious services at least weekly, which is same as the proportion of McCain supporters. Fewer Obama supporters (31%) say they attend religious services at least once a week.” Yep, it’s the bitter, bible-thumpers’ vote – one that I thought was potentially susceptible to the Sarah Palin pitch. My guess is that a greater number of them will break for McCain than for Obama in the last week. But it will require almost all of them to go for McCain if he is to have reasonable chance of catching Obama – a very tall order.
A word of caution is in order: because of the small number of independents in the Pew sample, the margin of error – 5.5% – is quite high for this subgroup. So we need to be careful in drawing conclusions about undecideds based on this sample.
How many undecideds will break for McCain, and will it be enough to overcome the 6-8% lead Obama appears to hold right now, based on the average of daily tracking polls? The answer depends in part on turnout among other groups. I’ll address that in the next post.