Forget About Undecided Voters
Credit where it’s due — this, from the Weekly Standard‘s Jay Cost, is on-the-money:
I would say that 90 percent of the vote is pretty well set. And this is the biggest reason that I am skeptical of these predictive models — they usually fail to account for the fact that there were simply more gettable voters for Ike in 1956, LBJ in 1964, Nixon in 1972, or even Reagan in 1984. They assume that a president today can still win 60 percent of the two-party vote — even though this was a regular occurrence before 1988 but has never happened since. And it has not happened since because the two parties have finally, after years of struggle and back-and-forth, locked down roughly 45 percent apiece.
This is a lesson not just for the wonky backwaters of predictive modeling, but a good lesson for moving forward through this presidential cycle. If the only real swath of persuable voters amounts to maybe 10 percent of the electorate, then we need to be careful in how we look at the horse race. After all, we are talking about a group of people that have virtually no partisan or ideological attachments, pay very little attention to politics, and often create the crazy swings we see in the horse race polls during the course of the cycle. They are at the least fickle and at the worst maddening, as they regularly tell pollsters they have settled opinions when in fact they do not!
That’s why I’m keeping an eye on the fundamentals – rather than the horse race polls – until relatively late in the cycle. My instinct is that this swath of 10 percent or thereabouts is going to “break” late, but they already have pretty well-formed opinions about Barack Obama, especially regarding how he’s handling the biggest issues of the day.
Where I’d disagree with Cost is his decision to focus (belatedly, but nonetheless) on these undecided voters. I agree with everything he says about them — in fact, they’re worse than he lets on — but I think there’s another piece: they tend to go with the side they think is winning. I don’t have proof of this at my command right now, so take it as the theory it is and with however much salt you think it deserves; but my sense is that these kind of tabula rasa voters are profoundly affected by how they perceive the political atmosphere.
What does that mean? It means that a candidate who has got his side really fired up and enthusiastic, á la Barack Obama in 2008, stands a good chance to reap the benefit of having undecideds break his way — especially if his opponent’s partisans are somewhat or significantly ambivalent (again,á la 2008 John McCain). Either Jonathan Chait or Matt Yglesias once put forward a similar theory about why Obamacare’s approval sunk: while the Right was uniform in its loathing, the Left was more divided, with some loving the bill, some acknowledging its flaws but deeming it better than nothing, and some absolutely hating it and urging for it to be voted down.*
Think about it: if you could choose between two restaurants, neither of which you had any opinions about whatsoever, and the patrons of Restaurant A were going on and on about its virtues while the patrons of Restaurant B were offering tepid endorsements, or asking you to focus on all the bad things about Restaurant A, don’t you think it’s likely that you’d be more inclined to give A your business?
I think it is. And that’s why I’m of the mind that, more than is usually the case with Presidential elections (with 2004 standing as something of an outlier), 2012 will be about which side can better mobilize its base. Undecided voters will matter in the end, of course, but they’ll vote for the candidate who does a better job of inspiring his base without alienating everyone else.
[*For the life of me I cannot find the original post where I read this…and I wasted a good 20 minutes searching. If anyone finds it, please share in the comments.]