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 Pollster.com, 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.