Monday, September 3, 2012

Obama is winning the election but losing the undecided

Romney has a two point lead over Obama among the undecided (source), but is likely to lose.
Sounds a bit strange, right?  Aren't elections won by the undecided?

The truth is, this happens quite a lot.  Studies show that incumbents usually lose the 'undecided' vote, (source), but incumbents usually win the election.  Quite frankly, undecided usually don't matter.

One of the main things that is going on is that the Democrats have a lot more strong supporters than the Republicans do.   But that's not all, there are other things going on as well.  Lets talk about the three other factors.

Here's what is going on.

  1. The undecided tend to reside in states that don't matter as much.
  2. The undecided don't vote.
  3. Undecided does not mean independent.  You can be an Obama/Romney supporter and not be a registered member of a political party. You can be also be a registered Republican/Democrat, and be undecided.

First of all, most states are already set.   (If the election has not happened yet, check the map on the upper right of this page. )   Of the 50 US states, only nine are really up for grabs.  Oh, a couple more are long shots, but frankly if they go 'the unexpected way', many other states will as well, so they don't really matter.  Frankly,if Obama wins Florida and any single other undecided state, even New Hampshire (only 4 electoral votes), then he wins the election.  So as a practical matter, how the undecided people vote in Texas, Calliforina, New York, Louisiana, etc. will not affect this election.

In fact, you are more likely to call yourself an 'undecided' in one of those states than in other states.  It's hard to admit that you are a Democrat if you live in a rural Texas county.  Almost worse than being a Yankee.   Similarly, it's hard to admit to being a Republican in the Bronx.  On the other hand, if you live in a swing state, like Florida, you are BOMBARDED with political ads. People work really hard at moving you one way or the other, and often they succeed.  If you are undecided in New York State, no one cares.  The state is going for Obama no matter what you vote.  If you are undecided in Florida, they work you over like food to starving people.  As a result, people stay undecided in the states that don't matter, but not so much in swing states.

But more importantly:
The conservatives vote.
The liberals vote.

The undecided people stay home.

The trick is not to get the undecided to marginally favor your candidate, as the recent polls show.  No,.  To get them to vote, you usually have to move them from marginally in favor of your candidate to strongly in favor of him.  That's a big push.   They don't make voting easy, particularly not in swing states.  You don't get a day off from work, there are long lines, some states may require photo ID's, etc. etc.  If you are not a strong supporter, why bother?

Finally the difference between undecided and independent voter is big.   When people say undecided, it doesn't mean you aren't a registered Democrat or Registered Republican.  (Source)

Let's get into the nitty-gritty numbers.  In a recent poll, they found:
15% were Strong Democrats. 16% were Moderate Democrats, 1% were Democrats but unknown Intensity.    Total 32% core Democrats.

But only 9% were strong Republicans, 14% moderate Republicans, None were Republican of unknown intensity.  Total only 23% core Republicans.  This was a 9% less core Republicans than Democrats.  More than enough to counter the 'undecided'.

That's a total of 32+23=55% of the population described themselves as partisans.  Leaving 45% as independents.  Lets talk about the independents. 

There were 12% Independents but leaning Democrat, and 4% lean Democratic but belong to a third party (or 'none').  Another likely 16% Obama votes, for a total of 47% - after accounting for rounding.

On the other side, there were 12% Independents leaning Republican plus another 6% third party people leaning Republican.  This makes for another 18% Romney voters, which is  +4 over the Independents leaning Democrat.  Totall everything up and 47% leaning Democrat vs 41% leaning Republican.

But for our discussion, not that is 16+18 = 34% of the people described themselves as independents but not undecided. 

In addition to the 88% that leaned one way or the other, we have 6% Independents that don't lean any way, 5% that are third party that don't lean any way, and another 3%  are actually planning on voting for a third party candidate.   (Yes, this comes out to 102% total - like I said before, rounding errors.)

That's only about 14% or so independents (probably closer to 12% given the rounding issues)  that are actually undecided.   

Undecided Voters are definitely valuable.  But you need a LOT of undecided voters to shift an election. 

Like I said previously, elections are not just about convincing undecided voters to vote for you, but also about convincing your own supporters to come out and vote and to convince your opponents base to stay home.  Obama looks like he has strong support among Democrats and there are more Democrats than Republicans. That is why Obama is going tow in the election.

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