Predicting the Votes of the Undecided Is Unusually Hard This Year

By Robert Barnes and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 31, 2008

Barack Obama made his last, best pitch to them Wednesday night, a 30-minute infomercial asking them to "stand with me, and fight by my side." John McCain continues to think they will move in his direction en masse and deliver him to a come-from-behind victory.

But for voters who are still undecided after the longest presidential campaign in history, time is running out. And many of those who say they have not committed to a candidate may actually have a favorite.

McCain pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a memo released to the media this week that voters who are telling pollsters that they have not made up their minds, or declined to say whom they are supporting, will eventually come through for McCain. He said that in the campaign's polling, undecided voters are "older, downscale, more rural and are certainly economically stressed" and likely to vote for McCain because they voted for President Bush decisively over Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) four years ago.

Even some Democrats subscribe to the theory that remaining undecided voters are really voters who have decided not to support Obama, despite his lead in the polls and the advantage he receives because of the unpopularity of the current Republican administration.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) said in a recent interview that "the undecideds are most likely not going to go in Obama's direction" in his state. Rendell, a perpetually nervous politician, acknowledges that Obama has a lead in his state greater than the number of undecideds but said there could be a problem if Democrats have trouble getting out their supporters.

That is one reason those on both sides are focusing on whether Obama's standing in the polls is more than 50 percent rather than on the size of his margin over McCain.

But beyond McInturff's unsurprising analysis and the intuition of Rendell and others, it is difficult to find evidence on which to predict the direction of the undecideds or even know how many of them there are. The range on likely voters with "no opinion" in this week's national polls varies from 1 to 9 percent. But that figure is more closely related to polling technique than to true indecision.

For instance, while the Washington Post-ABC national poll classifies only a small percentage of voters as "undecided," a larger percentage of the electorate is "movable," meaning those voters could shift their choice before Election Day.

The estimated number of movable voters in the current Post poll, which shows Obama in the lead with 52 percent to 44 percent, is 10 percent. That is about the same level as this time in 2004 (11 percent) and significantly less than the level in 2000 (17 percent).

Undecideds "are a very small group, I think, because people probably by now have made up their minds," Obama senior strategist David Axelrod said recently.

Obama's media blitz Wednesday -- the multimillion-dollar broadcast shown on half a dozen networks and cable stations, the late-night rally with former president Bill Clinton -- was a chance to talk directly to voters "one more time before they vote," Axelrod said.

But Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist not affiliated with the campaign, said he thought the Obama infomercial was already making the turn from trying to sell voters on the candidate to "reassuring them" that they had made the right choice. "I don't think we're in a persuasion [stage] now, we're in mobilization," he said. Devine thinks that even those voters who say they are undecided have a pretty good feel for how they are going to vote, because of their underlying views about the issues or their personal feelings about the candidates.

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