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Washington Post analysis: Undecided voters' lack of interest leaves election in hands of party faithful

Published: Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 7:32 a.m. CST

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"It seems that more than 96 percent of voters have already made up their minds about this election," the ad begins.

"Well, I guess some of us are just a little harder to please," it continues. "We're not impressed by political spin and 30-second sound bites. Before you get our vote, you're going to have to answer some questions. Questions like, 'When is the election?' 'How soon do we have to decide?' 'What are the names of the two people running?' "

As you might have guessed, the ad is a spoof. We're in that blissful few months before an election in which NBC's "Saturday Night Live" becomes really, really good.

Even though the ad is an exaggeration, it's not an outright lie. This election will probably be decided by a tiny fraction of the electorate in eight or nine states. The undecided voters in those states are popularly portrayed as people who just can't make up their minds. But that's not quite right. They aren't so much undecided as uninterested and, frankly, uninformed. In political science parlance — and "SNL" ads — they are "low information" voters.

It's worth stopping here to clarify something: "Uninformed" does not mean "dumb." We're all uninformed about certain topics. You wouldn't believe how little I know about, say, baseball. I'm vaguely aware that it happens, and that it culminates in a World Series, but I can't tell you who won last year, or who's in contention this year. Baseball just isn't something to which I pay attention.

Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that uninformed voters have roughly the same relationship to politics that I have to baseball.

"They are lower on political information, for sure. That's a function of being not that interested and not paying attention," she said. "It's not that they can't comprehend the information, or that they're at a balancing point and can't decide. They're just not dialed in. They're not getting all the information you or I are getting."

Vavreck asked thousands of voters — both decided and undecided — a battery of basic, multiple-choice questions about who's who in politics. The questions were designed to be easy. You didn't have to know that John Boehner is speaker of the House. You just had to know he is a congressman rather than a judge or the vice president.

According to Vavreck's polling, only 35 percent of undecided voters could identify Boehner's job as "congressman." Only 69 percent could say that Joe Biden is the vice president rather than, say, a representative. Only 17 percent can identify Chief Justice John Roberts as a judge.

Decided voters have an easier time rattling off the job titles of Boehner and Biden, as well as those of Harry Reid, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi. (Interestingly, they struggle more than undecideds to identify Roberts.)

That's likely because decided voters are paying more attention to the election. About 43 percent of decided voters say they're following the presidential election "very closely." Only 12 percent of undecided voters say the same.

Recognizing that undecided voters are mostly uninterested voters helps to clarify the trajectory of the presidential campaign. In their book "The Timeline of Presidential Elections," Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien show that voter preferences tend to be very stable in the fall but that campaign observers — the authors analyze people betting money in online political prediction markets — tend to assume those preferences are far more volatile.

The misjudgment makes sense as an act of psychological projection. To people personally invested in politics, the homestretch of the campaign appears to be loaded with the kind of political information that could change voter opinions. There are debates, a flood of ads, inevitable gaffes, the crush of election news — maybe even an October surprise or two.

But undecided voters are precisely those least likely to tune in to the debates, which helps explain why debates typically have little effect on elections. They're the least likely to care about a gaffe — or even to know when one has occurred. They're more likely to throw out political mail and tune out political ads. If they live in a swing state, they've already been buffeted by — and proved immune to — months of commercials and phone messages.

Vavreck has been tracking a group of 44,000 voters since December 2011. When she started, 94 percent were already leaning toward a candidate. Of the 6 percent who were truly undecided, 33 percent now say they're going with Mitt Romney and 37 percent with President Barack Obama. The ranks of the original undecided voters were partially replenished by voters who expressed a preference in 2011 but have since grown uncertain. Of the new undecideds, slightly more were Romney supporters in 2011 than were Obama supporters, but the total numbers are small.

There's little reason to believe that undecided voters in this campaign will break sharply toward one candidate. The votes of the undecideds seem to be roughly evenly split, and if any big news happens between now and the election, they will probably be the last to know about it and the least interested in following up on it. If Obama is going to turn this into a rout, or if Romney is to salvage a win, it will probably require changing minds that are already made up, or increasing (or suppressing) turnout among base voters.

In other words, don't expect the votes of the mythical undecideds to actually be decisive. It's likely to be the decided who will, well, decide.

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