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: Campaign strategists have long described late-deciding voters as “low-information” voters and microtargeters often spot higher rates of undecideds in areas the Census identifies as having low rates of high school or college-educated voters. Through a randomized experiment, the lefty Alliance for a Better Minnesota found a shortcut to identifying which voters were showing up as undecided because they lacked knowledge and not because they were conflicted or cross-pressured. The group asked “Can you name your member of Congress?” and found that those who didn’t know the correct answer were perfect targets: they could be moved late in a campaign with a piece of information-rich mail. To better profile these undecideds, the Voter Participation Center, formerly Women’s Voices Women’s Vote, recently added a battery of six questions—name the vice president, or the number of representatives in Congress—to measure political knowledge.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Some of Ron Paul’s handbills are text-heavy and dense with information about issues like right-to-work laws—they might not be addressing hot-button concerns but could give under-informed voters the confidence to think they have the information to make a decision.



WHO THEY ARE: Some voters will claim to be undecided even as the caucuses begin on Tuesday night. In a poll conducted for their book Why Iowa?, political scientists David Redlawsk, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan conducted a novel poll at caucus locations in 2008, randomly interviewing one Democrat and one Republican at each of the state’s 1,774 precincts. Even as they sat in the room minutes away from voting, just under 5 percent of attendees surveyed said, “I have not yet made my decision.” Their decision is likely an impulsive one.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Candidates are allowed to have a supporter make their case before voting begins, and having close to 1,784 of these so-called precinct captains is typically held up as the sign of a well-prepared campaign. The speaker doesn’t have to be an Iowan, and it’s likely that some of the surrogates crossing the state this week for Romney—like his sons and wife—will be dispatched to make a last-minute case for Mitt in precincts where the campaign has identified large concentrations of independents.

MEET ONE: “My decision is going to be at the last second at the caucus. Last time I wavered between three people at the caucus. You’ve got to have the sense that ‘this is the guy who’s ready to run America and watch out.’ Our leader needs to look good.” —Bruce Kalisek of Waukee, realtor


WHO THEY ARE: Are voters claiming to be undecided because they’re afraid to report what’s really driving their choice? In the 2008 general election, final polls closely predicted Obama’s actual popular-vote total, while John McCain performed nearly two points better, suggesting that late-deciding voters broke toward the Republican. Rutgers’s David Redlawsk found that among the 6 percent of voters who described themselves as undecided in the final days of the campaign, two-thirds indirectly acknowledged worry over the fact that Obama would be the first black president, according to a survey list experiment designed to discern hidden bias. Are Iowans now wary of acknowledging their bias against a Mormon or female candidate hiding their actual preference by claiming to be undecided?

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: It’s less likely that such hidden bias exists in a multi-candidate field than in a two-way general election, but the Romney and Bachmann campaigns can use survey list experiments or other forms of indirect questioning to profile out those likely to be problematic—and make sure they’re not turning out the wrong undecideds.


WHO THEY ARE: In a multi-candidate race, it can often be easier to decide whom to oppose than it is to settle on a favorite—and it turns out, despite their supposed niceness, there’s an august tradition of negativity propelling Iowans to vote. In a phone survey immediately after the 2008 caucuses, the Why Iowa? authors asked those who had turned out why they had done so. While 95 percent said “it was the right thing to do,” 27 percent identified a less uplifting motive for attending: to “oppose some other candidate.” In a year of so-called anti-Mitts, a bloc of voters may be intent on caucusing to block one candidate—but haven’t decided whom to back when they do. 

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Media strategists often talk about replacing their negative ads in the final days with positive message, so expect this weekend to be filled with gauzy feel-good spots; Romney’s closing stump speeches are full of patriotic platitudes. In a multi-candidate field, where haters have many places to end up, this is even more important.


“I haven’t fully made up my mind, but if we’re down to two or three candidates there’s one I can’t vote for … Paul appeals to a segment of the Republican party, and some Democrats, who want no laws, no rules, no regulations.  I don’t like the fact that he wants to legalize drugs and gay marriage.  I have a real problem with libertarian policies.” —Bill Nichols of Ames, Christian book publisher