With the polls showing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama leading his Republican rival John McCain, who could still make a difference? The undecided voters, of course!
Depending on which poll you look at, the undecideds range from 5 percent to 12 percent of the electorate. If you look more broadly at swing voters – who might change their mind up to Election Day – the number could go as high as 16 percent.
In theory, at least, those are numbers big enough to narrow or close the gap between the two major-party candidates.
However, a closer look shows that the hesitant voters are mostly on the Republican side. So the real effect of these cross-pressured voters, when they make up their minds, may be to determine whether Obama’s victory is slender or a blowout.
The most detailed analysis we have of undecided voters comes from the Democracy Corps poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in mid-October. Although their poll found that only 5% of voters were undecided, the proportion in that category jumped dramatically in certain groups:
· Young white non-college men: 11%
· White rural voters outside the South: 9%
· Senior women: 9%
· Older white union men: 8%
· White young married men: 8%
· White married moms: 8%
· Non-college whites with post-HS education: 8%
What these groups have in common—they are typically Republican-leaning.
A similar pattern emerged in the Gallup poll from the week of Oct. 13-19, the most recent published by the polling mammoth. They found that 7 percent of voters were undecided.
While they didn’t break them down in as much detail as in the Democracy Corps results, the highest proportions were among voters over 65 (12%), whites with less than high school education (10%), and white Independents (24%).
The most recent breakdown comes from the joint Greenberg – Public Opinion Strategies poll for NPR, conducted, Oct. 19-21 in 15 swing states.
Although only 3 percent of the voters were undecided or refused to name their choice in this poll, it found 16 percent of voters felt they would only decide for sure on Election Day. These were most likely to be the same sorts of people undecided in the earlier polls: older white non-college men, unmarried white men, white devout mainline Protestants, and liberal or moderate Republicans – all groups normally in the Republican camp.
The NPR poll also found a few groups of women who tended to be swing voters, including, surprisingly, white young college women and previously married women.
Overall, though, the evidence suggests that undecided voters at this point of the race largely consist of voters who would normally be Republican-leaning. If McCain can bring them home over the remaining days, as may well happen, the race will tighten, but not enough to erase Obama’s lead. However, if they break for Obama, or split fairly evenly, this race may be headed towards a Democratic landslide.
Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm.