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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.

Debra Deremiah knew exactly whom she would vote for in November: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. With that option gone, the 59-year-old Democrat from Amherst, Ohio, is at a loss.

"I'm undecided, and I am not an undecided type of person," Deremiah said. She said she rarely votes a straight party ballot and is weighing who could "salvage" the economy and who has "the right experience for what we need now in our place in the world."

"I'll vote," she said, "I just don't know which way I'll go."

Nearly half of all movables in the Post poll are independents, as most partisans have sorted out as expected. Overall, independents go 49 percent for Obama, 45 percent for McCain.

Several variables this year make predictions hard. For one, pollsters of all stripes see in their surveys an unprecedented interest in the race, which could lead to record turnouts and alter the normal turnout models. The interest is evident in early-voting states. In the Post poll, nearly two in 10 voters, 17 percent, said they have already cast ballots. And 18 percent said they plan to vote before Tuesday.

The Post poll illustrates a challenge for McCain in making a strong close.

Among those voters who say they are still undecided or open to persuasion, more are currently McCain supporters than Obama backers. So McCain has to fight to hang on to those voters as well as persuade those leaning toward the Democrat. And Obama's supporters seem more enthusiastic. Among all likely voters in the Post-ABC poll, 49 percent say they will "definitely" vote for Obama heading into the final weekend, compared with 40 percent who say the same about McCain.

At this stage in his successful elections in 2000 and 2004, Bush had the solid support of only 44 percent of those polled.

One intriguing question about the undecided voters is whether there is a hidden racial component that would tip them decisively toward McCain. The speculation is that voters might be reluctant to tell pollsters they would vote against Obama because he is an African American, even if they have decided to do so.

But University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles H. Franklin has just completed an analysis of polling data that he says finds no evidence of that. His study of tracking data collected by the Hotline shows that undecided voters -- 6 percent of the total in those surveys -- have similar attitudes toward African Americans as those who have made up their minds. This and other analyses seem to show that whatever role racial prejudice plays in voters' decisions, there is no net effect on Obama's or McCain's level of support.

Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

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