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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

Undecided Voters Hold the Key — If They Ever Make Up Their Minds

A voter casts a primary ballot in Manchester, N.H., in January.(UPI/Kevin Dietsch)

photo of Beth Reinhard
November 4, 2012

Many factors will shape the outcome of Tuesday’s election. One of them is whether Liz Fretz gets off the fence.

The 50-year-old information-technology consultant lives in Northern Virginia, one of the hardest-fought battlegrounds in the country, and she still hasn’t made up her mind.

“I kind of feel like the current administration hasn’t done enough and has broken promises, but I’m kind of scared of Mitt Romney because he reminds me of every evil business owner I’ve ever met,” Fretz said. “The recovery has taken way too long and been too up and down, but I’m not sure if Romney really has the people at heart.”


The seesawing Fretz represents the sliver of the electorate, probably as tiny as 4 percent, that could be the final tiebreaker in a race that’s been deadlocked for months. Like most other undecided voters, Fretz is a woman who considers herself an independent and pays only sporadic attention to politics. Her disappointment with President Obama’s economic stewardship and uneasiness with Romney on a gut level are common refrains. Whom she and other undecided voters ultimately support — or whether they vote at all — could determine the outcome in states that look particularly close, like Virginia and Colorado, and, more broadly, determine the next occupant of the White House.

The share of the electorate without a favorite candidate has remained fairly stable, despite major events like the nominating conventions and presidential debates. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, for example, found 6 percent undecided when Obama led by 8 points in mid-September before the conventions, 6 percent undecided when Romney was up by 4 points in mid-October after the first debate, and 6 percent undecided in the last week of October. The latest score: 47 percent to 47 percent.

“I think the undecided voters could be extremely important, and their impact could matter beyond the election,” said Republican pollster David Hill. “One of the reasons our politics have become so partisan is because candidates spend so much time playing to their base. There’s not much that pollsters get excited about, but I’m excited about the prospect of independents having their say on Tuesday.”

Other political strategists argue that last-ditch efforts to persuade moderate, undecided voters may be less important than the final push by the campaigns to mobilize their more partisan supporters. “I think the undecideds stay home,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. “At this point, it comes down to intensity and enthusiasm.”

Peter Jones, who like Fretz, lives in closely contested Northern Virginia, is lacking both of those things. The 33-year-old editor said it doesn’t matter who wins the election, and he plans to stay out of it.

“There’s no reason to believe what they say,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much difference in what they would actually do. Both are pretty bad.”

Not only is there debate about whether the remaining undecided voters will show up Tuesday, there is also debate about which way they will break.

In the three last elections in which an incumbent president was seeking reelection, the late deciders favored the challenger, according to data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute.

In 2004, 55 percent of the voters who made up their minds in the last three days voted for John Kerry over President Bush. In 1996, 35 percent of the late deciders favored President Clinton, compared with 40 percent for Republican Bob Dole and 23 percent for independent Ross Perot. Late deciders also favored Democrat Walter Mondale over President Reagan in 1984.

None of these challengers won, so it’s apparent there weren’t enough late deciders to carry them to victory. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at AEI, said the data isn’t sufficient to support a paradigm about voters who make up their minds at the very end. “I know it looks like there’s a pattern, but we don’t have enough information,” she said.

But there’s also what Hill calls the 50 percent rule: An incumbent who is below 50 percent in the polls will lose on Election Day because undecided voters will disproportionately favor the challenger.

“The underpinning of the rule is that everyone thoroughly knows the incumbent, so if they haven’t made a decision yet to vote for reelection, it becomes improbable that they are going to have an 11th-hour epiphany,” Hill said. “There can’t be anyone out there that doesn’t have an opinion about Barack Obama. What new thoughts are you likely to have about him by Tuesday?”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman insisted that recent history doesn’t back up that theory. He pointed to the 2008 and 2010 Senate races, when 11 incumbents went into Election Day with less than 50 percent of the vote in the polls. Five won; six lost.

While the 50 percent rule may have applied in the past — in Senate races between 1994 and 2004, on average, 70 percent of the undecideds broke to the challenger — it no longer holds true, Mellman said. In the 1980s and 1990s, most incumbents were much better known than their challengers, but undecided voters learned enough by Election Day to vote against the status quo. More recently, as campaign spending has skyrocketed, fewer challengers are unknown before Election Day.

“People really know the candidates in races where millions are spent, and they know Mitt Romney,” Mellman said. “They may be negatively disposed toward the incumbent, but they are not ignorant about either one.”

Data compiled by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, and Hart Research Associates, a Democratic firm, for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal suggest that undecided voters lean toward Obama. In a profile of the “up for grabs” voter, defined as a voter leaning toward Obama or Romney, favoring another candidate, or favoring neither candidate, Obama was viewed favorably by 43 percent and negatively by 33 percent. By contrast, only 26 percent had a favorable image of Romney and 40 percent had a negative view of Romney.

Lynn Vavreck is a UCLA associate professor of political science and a principal investigator at the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, which has been interviewing 1,000 people per week since January. She said the data show that undecided voters have been breaking for Obama since the summer, and there’s no reason to think that trend, while not as strong in the last three weeks, would change in the final days of the campaign.

“My hunch is that a lot of undecideds stay home, maybe one-third of them, and the remaining ones break for Obama,” she said. “People know what life is like under Obama. There’s much more uncertainty about a Romney presidency, and generally uncertainty is bad.”

John Sides, a George Washington University associate professor of political science who is also working on the campaign project, comes down in the middle. He expects the undecided voters to break fairly evenly between Romney and Obama.  “You don’t know who exactly is going show up at the polls and who is not. You don’t know whether the impact of independent voters will be outmatched by the mobilization of base partisans. You need a microscope to see this very small sliver of undecided voters, but you can’t get it focused enough and they keep moving.”

At least until Tuesday.

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