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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Undecided voters

Heard the author of this article, Ezra Klein, on NPR this afternoon. In that discussion, he noted that while undecideds say they're waiting to hear more specifics from the candidates (a claim that has always puzzled me), it's not really the WHAT that they haven't heard, it's the HOW. That makes a lot more sense. Here's an excerpt from his very interesting LA Times piece. I like the photograph analogy.

. . . 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.

They asked the 4% of their sample that claimed to be undecided to rate the two candidates in early October. When they went back to the same people after the election, more than 80% had in fact voted for whichever candidate they'd rated most highly a month earlier. But campaigns need something to do in September and October. Most of the electorate has chosen a side, and the small sliver that claims still to be puzzling over the pronunciation of the Democrat's last name could prove decisive.

Or could it? A provocative paper from James Campbell, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, comes to a different conclusion. Examining nine presidential elections, Campbell compared the size of the swing vote (defined here as voters with weak leanings before the heat of the campaign) with the size of the non-swing vote. Swing voters are known to be a minority of the population, but it turns out that they're not a particularly decisive minority. "In only one of the nine elections, the 1976 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter," writes Campbell, "did the swing vote majority override an opposite majority among non-swing voters." In other words, in eight of the last nine elections, the winner could have lost swing voters but won the race. In a second test, which examined voters who were undecided at a later point in the race, Campbell found that the last campaign in which they were decisive was 1960.

Campbell concludes by quoting Paul Lazarsfeld, a political scientist from the 1940s who argued that campaigns are essentially over before they have begun. The outcomes are structural -- they are decided by events and party identification and satisfaction with the incumbent and other predictable indicators. Campaigns, he said, are "like the chemical bath which develops a photograph. The chemical influence is necessary to bring out the picture, but only the picture pre-structured on the plate can come out."



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