Today’s New York Times is a target-rich environment for a brain geek. In addition to my own op-ed on the brains of undecided voters, there’s an op-ed by David Brooks on irrational decision-making in financial markets. All decisions, all the time. And for my second geek, there’s the piece on polling analysis (in which I am quoted). There are a few points that didn’t fit in our article.
The undecided v. persuadables. Seemingly paradoxically, the undecided voters are not necessarily the ones that need to be won over at this point. Charles Franklin has data showing that considerable swings in the race can occur rapidly, while the number of undecided voters declines only slowly. Focus groups of undecided voters do not, on average, jump on or off bandwagons quickly. These observations are consistent with the idea that a large share of movement in a race comes from voters switching allegiances, i.e. from McCain to Obama, or Obama to McCain.
I suspect that “undecided” voters are not easily distinguishable from “decided” voters in what moves them. In past elections they have broken unevenly between the candidates. But they may have biases as strong as those of decideds. In other words, what you see in decided respondents is what you get. In general, campaigns should really think of all voters as committed, and work on persuading them.
The Bradley effect. Undecided voters may differ from the decided mainly in their awareness of their own voting tendency. Although I am unaware of data to speak to this point, this could be relevant to the Bradley effect. Poll consumers have speculated that respondents lie about their preference. But what if the respondents are in fact being as truthful as they can, and realize that their preference is different once they are in the voting booth?
I consider this hypothesis to be more likely than the idea that they feel constrained to lie to a stranger on the telephone. Lying makes little sense since respondents can give any reason, or none at all, when expressing a candidate preference.
In other words, respondents may be simply unaware that they have a race-based bias. Such a bias is well-documented. For a popular description, see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.