Category Archives: The Middle

Undecideds in Pennsylvania – Did They Break for McCain?

Because it’s pertinent to our recent discussion on undecideds, I want to provide a brief overview of the movement of undecideds in Pennsylvania in the last two weeks. In looking at this data, don’t forget the ecological fallacy issue – we can’t be sure of individual level movement based on aggregate data.  With that in mind, Muhlenberg College conducts the only daily tracking poll in Pennsylvania. Since Oct. 14, Obama has gone from 51% to 52%, a gain of 1%.  McCain has gone from 38% to 44%, a gain of 6%. The number of “undecideds” or “others” has dropped from 11% to 5%.   This is consistent with – but not proof of – undecideds/others breaking for McCain at about 5-1.  Even if this is true, however, and the remaining 5% break for him at this rate, Obama will still win the state.  For McCain to spring the upset, he needs to see some slippage in Obama’s support rather than simply relying on winning the undecideds.  And this holds true at the national level as well.

Keep in mind that this is all based on one tracking poll with all the requisite warnings I have given you regarding relying on a single poll, random variations, margin of error, etc.  Moreover, Pennsylvania’s demographics do not mirror the nation’s, so one should not necessarily extrapolate trends from that state to the overall race.

Undecideds and Persuadables

Here are two more articles relevant to my recent post regarding undecideds. (See here and here.)   According to the AP/Yahoo poll, almost one in ten voters remain undecided – a slightly higher number than what many of the other surveys are reporting.  As the second article indicates, and as I alluded to in my earlier post, the difference is due in part to the question wording that pollsters use when asking respondents for whom they are likely to vote.  As David Moore points out in the other article cited above, pollsters routinely push undecideds to make a choice.  They also tend not to highlight in their stories the number of respondents who say they might change their mind. Why does this matter?  Keep in mind that pollsters ask people who they would vote for if the election was held today – not who they think they will vote for on Nov. 4, the actual election day.  In other words, there is room for voters who say they are leaning toward someone to change their mind even this late in the process.  Consider that the 2004 exit poll found 9 percent of voters saying they had made up their minds in the three days before the election.  In short, looking only at undecideds in any given poll may understate the number of persuadables remaining in the electorate.  For example, the most recent ABC poll suggests that there are only 2% undecideds remaining. But in the fine print of the poll, you find an additional 3% who say there is a “good” chance they will change their mind.  Among McCain supporters, 4% say they there is a “good” chance they might change their mind, but only 1% of Obama supporters say as much.  In the CBS poll, fully 7% of Obama supporters and 9% of McCain supporters say their minds are not made up.  In the Fox poll, 17% of Obama and 22% of McCain supporters indicate that they support their candidate only “somewhat.”  None of these voters are considered “undecided”, however.   But it suggests that there may be more room for movement in support for both candidates than the top-line survey results suggests.

The Undecideds, Take Two

We are on the homestretch and I will be posting shorter posts quite frequently leading up to Tuesday’s night Election Eve coverage, which I will try to blog while doing double duty with election night coverage at the Grille here at the College.   In this post I want to revisit an issue I discussed in an earlier blog, and during my talk yesterday at the College: who are the undecideds, and for which candidate will they vote?

In the earlier post, I drew on data presented by a Pew poll to show that the undecideds are slightly more white, less affluent, less educated and less politically aware than voters as a whole, and therefore were more likely to break for McCain than for Obama.  I also suggested, however, that with only 6-8% of voters still undecided, that they would all need to break for McCain to make a difference in this race.  However, using data from a study discussed by Mark Blumenthal at, I estimated that the undecideds might only break for McCain by a slight margin, say 53-47, which would net him only about 1% in the overall vote.  That might be enough to push him over the top in some tossup states, but probably not enough to change the outcome of the race.

However, using tracking poll numbers provided by my crack research assistant Kaitlynn Saldahana, I decided to take a second look at the estimates of the number of undecideds to see if they jibe with Pew’s numbers.  Remember, each pollster has a different policy for dealing with undecideds – some “push” them to make a choice, thus folding more uncertain voters into the overall column for a particular candidate.  Others allow the undecideds to stay undecided.  In looking at the data from the various tracking polls, we find that estimates of the number of undecideds range from a low of 2% in Rasmussen and Zogby to 9% in the IBD poll.  Here’s the latest data on the race, including undecideds, for each tracking poll, (first number McCain, second Obama, and third is the undecideds. Note that because Rasmussen doesn’t list undecideds, I categorize the unaccounted vote as undecided):

Rasmussen       47        50        2

Zogby              43        50        2

Gallup              45        50        4

Hotline             42        48        6

Battleground     45        49        6

IBD/TIPP:        43.9     46.9     9.2

Additionally, here’s data from the major news surveys which come out more intermittently (same format – McCain, Obama, Undecideds)

ABC                42        51        6

FOX                44        47        6

CBS                 41        52        5

What does this suggest?   The average for pollsters showing 5-6% undecideds is McCain 42.8%, and Obama 49.4.  The average for pollsters with 2-4% undecided is McCain 45% and Obama 50%.  What this suggests is that when pollsters push the undecideds to make a choice, they appear to break for McCain by a roughly 5 to 1.  This is a very crude estimate, of course, based on a small number of polls with a lot of uncertainty, but it is entirely consistent with my read of the demographics of these voters.  So, let’s assume there are still about 3% undecideds out there, and they do break for McCain at 5 to 1.  This gives McCain approximately 2.4% while Obama gains maybe a half percent. This will make the final tally closer to  51.5 Obama to 47.5 McCain, with about 1% going to other candidates.   This is all back of the envelope calculations, of course, and is subject to revision as more polling data comes in.  Most importantly, it doesn’t tell us much about the key battleground states.  But, if my reasoning is correct, it suggests that we should see the race tighten at the national level in the next few days, if the undecideds become decideds.  However, on Election Day last year, 3% of those surveyed still claimed to be undecided.  If that holds true this year, we won’t see the McCain gain until the votes are counted.


Analyzing the Undecideds

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 ( 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.