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.

Iowa voters.
A roomful of Iowa voters in Ames come to hear GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speak on Dec. 29.

Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

Just over one-half of the Iowa Republicans surveyed by Time/CNN this week said they would “definitely support” the candidate they backed at the time of the poll. Among the remainder, opinions are still fluid—by any measure, a staggeringly high share of likely voters. A much higher percentage of voters appear to make late decisions in the caucuses than in presidential general elections: While 10 percent of voters nationwide in the fall of 2008 told exit pollsters they made up their minds in the race’s final week, 40 percent of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa that year did. Seventeen percent said they made up their mind on the day of the caucuses. 

This presents a serious challenge for the Republicans vying for votes in this year’s Iowa caucus. To make matters worse, many voters who tell pollsters they’re undecided are actually anything but—they’ve made up their mind, but for one reason or another, don’t care to share their feelings with pollsters. What’s more, studies have shown that many undecided voters don’t ever show up to vote in elections at all, making efforts to win them over doubly doomed. But the candidates do have some strategies for dealing with this squirrely segment of the electorate. Campaigns know, for instance, that undecided voters are not all the same. Here are a dozen different types of self-described undecided voters, and how the Republican presidential candidates are dealing with them in the final days before the Iowa caucus. N.B.: Some voters likely fit into more than one category.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.


WHO THEY ARE: A lot of Iowans want to vote strategically, but don’t know how. Since 1972, when changes in the nominating calendar placed the caucuses first, Iowans concerned with supporting a candidate who can capture the nomination and then be a strong general-election contender have had less evidence to go on than voters in all the other states. That is likely one significant reason why so many Iowa caucus-goers remain undecided for so long. The problem is particularly acute this year, when the polls have been fluid and have never pointed to a consistent national frontrunner.


In early December, the George Washington University political scientist John Sides and Republican consultant Alex Lundry (of the firm TargetPoint Consulting) collaborated on an online experiment to test whether new information on electability moved voters. They polled Republican primary voters on their preferences, and then showed them the latest predictions from Intrade, which indicated Romney was the most electable candidate, followed by Newt Gingrich. The Intrade data proved persuasive: Forty percent of voters changed their pick after seeing it, mostly by going to Romney or Gingrich from less viable opponents—or by moving from “no preference” to picking a candidate.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: One pro-Romney super-PAC is already up with TV ads showing a luggage carousel and a voiceover that asks, “Know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich's baggage.”

MEET ONE: “I’m still shopping. I’ve probably got it narrowed down to two right now: Romney and Paul. Electability is probably the big thing … I’m looking for someone who will challenge the status quo, but I think Romney is a safe choice—he’s a good campaigner, he’s made the fewest mistakes, seems like he’s not going to have any surprises down the road.” —Darren Kleis of Johnston, real estate portfolio manager


WHO THEY ARE: Much has been written about the role of wedge issues in general-election races, where an emotional issue can be used to divide a party coalition: Think of the Republican who defected to John Kerry over stem cells, or the Democrat who supported the Iraq surge and was pulled to McCain because of national-security concerns. But even in a primary, where the field largely agrees on many issues, a single subject can give a voter pause about backing a candidate he or she is otherwise drawn to. For instance, a voter attracted to Gingrich or Perry might be hung up by their relatively liberal attitudes toward legalizing immigrants.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: One reason so many candidates, from Perry to Bachmann, have been intent on reminding voters of Ron Paul’s dovish posture toward Iran is to make undecided voters anxious about moving toward the Texas Congressman.

MEET ONE: “I like Ron Paul, and his ideas about finance—and he’s been talking about them for years, and he’s been right for years. But I’m still looking … If he gets elected, he’ll pull all our forces out and the military would be cut. It’s good to pull some of the reins back, but that seems a little extreme! It really is something I pray about. I just don’t think you can strip down to the levels that he would.” —Lisa D. of Des Moines, insurance salesperson


WHO THEY ARE: Just after the 2004 election, pollster Celinda Lake and mail consultant Hal Malchow convened a focus group with 13 voters who had cast ballots in a St. Louis-area state senate race but had been undecided until the last minute. Lake and Malchow wanted to know how each voter had made up his or her mind. In 12 of the cases, it was a single recommendation from a trusted friend or relative that pushed the voter toward a decision. (The 13th seemed to be an outlier: a voter whose door had been knocked by one candidate on the Thursday before the election, and was so impressed he invited the candidate to address his church group on Sunday night.) Their conclusion: late-deciding voters, often short on information and knowledge, can move because of word-of-mouth.

WHAT CAMPAIGNS ARE DOING WITH THEM: Campaigns with enthusiastic, committed supporters—Ron Paul seems to win the category—may expect their loyalists to spread the word even if their ads, mail, and phone can’t break through the din.