Undecided voters in Iowa: There are 12 different kinds.

The 12 Kinds of Undecided Voters

The 12 Kinds of Undecided Voters

The new science of winning campaigns.
Dec. 30 2011 1:01 PM

The 12 Kinds of Undecided Voters

Liars, haters, mavens, know-nothings, bandwagon riders, and other kinds of voters who just can’t make up their minds.

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WHO THEY ARE: Too many friends, however, can be overwhelming. Dianna C. Mutz, now at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that voters whose social networks force them to encounter dissonant views—like, say, a businessman whose chamber of commerce buddies push him to Romney while his fellow churchgoers are talking up Perry—remained undecided later in the campaign. Such indecision can be paralyzing: Those facing what Mutz describes as “cross-cutting social networks” were less likely to actually vote at all.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: The best indication of someone’s likelihood to vote remains their past voting history, so toward the end of a campaign field organizers start ignoring infrequent voters who are undecided—whether because of cross-cutting social networks or general laziness—to focus on those with a better record of turning out.


MEET ONE: “I’m still considering—I like a lot of them. I really haven’t made up my mind. I thought I had done that three times: I was with Newt before I realized who Newt was. I like Mitt Romney. Some days I even like Ron Paul … I have a lot of friends and family who have made up their minds, and they keep inviting me to come to the Westside Conservative Club.” —Jackie Fleming of Urbandale, retired AAA employee


WHO THEY ARE: In late 2007, Hillary Clinton’s data team noticed a peculiar trend coming out of Iowa: The numbers coming in from volunteer phone banks consistently overstated Clinton’s support when compared to the numbers coming in from the paid call centers the campaign also used to identify voters. One of Clinton’s analysts concluded that part of the problem might be exuberant volunteers overestimating a voter’s potential support—so you’re saying there’s a chance? But the bigger takeaway was that voters don’t always want to be honest with someone on the other end of the phone about their preference. The easiest way to let a canvasser down easy: claim you’re undecided when you’re not. And while the Democratic caucuses require attendees to declare their preference in public, Republicans vote by secret ballot—so it’s easy for a voter to keep a choice private throughout the process.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Some campaigns automatically adjust their predictive models to discount volunteer contact compared to paid calls. (In Iowa and elsewhere, Republicans have traditionally been far more reliant on paid calls than volunteers.) But if a voter is hiding behind “undecided,” there’s not much you can do to find that out—or change their mind.

MEET ONE: “They’ve all been calling me. One asked if I knew who I was supporting. I said no, and they ended the call … I’ve finally made up my mind, but I’m not willing to say.” —Dave Roederer of Johnston, director of Iowa Department of Management and John McCain’s 2008 Iowa chairman


WHO THEY ARE: A large chunk of people decide late because they just don’t care about politics and tune it out for as long as they can. Tulane’s Brian Brox and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s Joseph Giammo examined the attributes of late deciders in presidential general elections and found that a large chunk of them resembled the “stereotypical apathetic citizen.” They tended to be less partisan and politically active than early deciders, treated the candidates as interchangeable, and weren’t inclined to care who won. One surprising twist: Brox and Giammo found that these “low-interest late deciders” seemed to recoil at information sent their way. The more Republican ads they saw, the less likely they were to vote Republican; Democratic ads pushed them toward the GOP. “These voters may actually be likely to become irritated with the efforts of candidates to attract their votes,” Brox and Giammo write, “since we know that they have little interest in the campaign in the first place.”

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: That “low-interest late decider” doesn’t look much like the typical caucus-goer—among Republicans, at least, caucus-goers tend to be better educated and more partisan than the broader electorate—but a big turnout on Tuesday could pull in some atypical Iowans. The last-minute advertising barrage could backfire most with them.


WHO THEY ARE: Brox and Giammo found another subcategory, “high-interest late deciders,” who look entirely different: They are more partisan and make sharper distinctions among the candidates than even early deciders. “These high-interest late deciders more closely approximate the idealized view of voters that has taken such a beating in political science over the past 50 years, taking the time to consider all of the evidence before coming to a conclusion,” the authors write. These voters are more likely to pay attention to media coverage, but campaign ads and candidate visits to their states don’t move them.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Loyal, active Republicans are receiving the most regular contact from campaigns now in Iowa, and candidates will try to make a mark on them until caucus night.

MEET ONE: “I’m still not there yet. Isn’t it awful? I hate that … I don’t take this lightly at all. This is a serious time our country is in, so we have to make sure we have the right man in there. I have plenty of time.” —Nevie Roe of Waukee, housewife


WHO THEY ARE: Polls tend to treat being decided as a binary condition—like being single or being married—but what if people are dating the candidate they’ll end marrying but just don’t know it yet? University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidates Lauren Kogen and Jeffrey A. Gottfried invoke the dating metaphor in a new paper in Political Behavior that considers the National Annenberg Election Survey taken during the 2008 general election. The survey asked respondents throughout the campaign for their candidate preference, and then asked those who voted after the election when they made their final decision. By looking at the overlap between the two methods, Kogen and Gottfried found that nearly one-third of voters claimed to have been undecided later in the campaign than they actually were. They called this category “uncommitted early deciders,” and found they were more partisan and more knowledgeable about the campaign than those who really did decide at the end.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Romney has an advantage here. His data-intensive campaign has the names of voters who were identified as his supporters last time and can match it to a list of caucus-goers to see who actually turned out before. Internal research shows their profile has remained stable over the last four years, so the campaign has been able to infer the support of these voters even if they call themselves “undecided.”

MEET ONE: “I’m undecided. All of them are good, they’re all wonderful, but I’m interested in somebody who can run a business. It has to be a businessman … I haven’t decided for sure, but it will probably be Romney, and I voted for him last time.” —Ladonna Gratias of Clive, home-builder