11/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Four Types of Undecided Voters

I am still scratching my head about something. The undecided voters. Who are these people?

Please help me understand who they are and what they're like. Are they the same folks who torture waitresses because they can't decide between the Cesear salad with grilled chicken or the penne pasta with sun-dried tomatoes.

"Hmmm....I just don't know. Which do you like?" they ask, as the waitress plasters a smile over her gritted teeth. "Is the pasta garlicky? Do you use olive oil in that or butter? Geez, everything looks so good, how can I decide. Well, ok, I know you're busy, so I'll have the wait, how about the fish tacos.....well, give me another minute." They call out as the waitress recedes from view. "Gosh, I just don't know."

Meanwhile, you're either developing a migraine or ready to rip the menu out of their hands. It's all you can do to not shout out, "Make up your *#@% mind already, it's just lunch."

Now, some might say that ordering lunch is analogous to the undecided voters, who quite possibly may hold the future of the planet in their hands. For them, the magnitude of the issues make this a momentous election, not just lunch and a much more difficult decision. Is it that they desperately want to make the perfect, correct and right decision, they just can't decide? Or is there more to it?

At this point in the race to the White House, where the two candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, seem to be polar opposites, it's difficult for me to understand how anyone could still be undecided. Like I tell my students at Stanford, put on your CSI detective hat and try to figure it out. So I did a little digging, starting with some academic research on the topic, polled some friends, and then I talked to a few undecided voters.

Turns out, from my cursory look at the topic, there are lots of different kinds of undecided voters. They don't fall neatly into an easily parodied pigeon hole.

Hesitant Mavericks - These are people who have always voted with one party and could never imagine themselves switching to "the other party, ewww", but as the election draws closer, and the race gets more interesting each day, they find their gut is telling them to change allegiances. There's an internal wrestling match going on which leads to indigestion and a new found addiction to Tums.

In a recent issue of Science, Bertram Gawronski and his colleagues discussed these types of undecided voters who demonstrated unconscious preferences before they were able to articulate their choices. It's as if one part of the brain is whispering to the other side that hasn't quite woken up yet. The whispering brain knows full well what it wants to do, and is waiting for the rest of the brain to catch up. The clue phone is ringing and it's for you!

Darth Vader - It is your destiny to vote for........ Maybe not. One undecided voter reminds me of Darth Vader and his struggles with Luke Skywalker. This guy desperately wants to vote a certain way, but feels that he's being drawn back to the "Dark Side" of his family tradition. He visibly cringes when he talks about what would happen if they "ever found out." He's afraid to be honest and come clean. He has a paucity of self-confidence when faced with other choices in life and this one has him all tied up in knots of self-doubt. I think this poor guy needs professional help, but that's another story.

Busy Bees - These are people who are too busy with their lives to make time for the election. They are working hard, commuting long distances, trying to pay the bills, do the laundry and put food on the table. They don't have time to educate themselves about the election and the candidates' positions, but feel overwhelmed and don't need yet another thing on their infinitely long To Do List.

One woman I spoke to from Ohio said that she felt guilty because she knew she should be paying closer attention, but with her work schedule, family commitments on weekends and utter exhaustion, she just couldn't make the time, and it's possible (and I know this is hard to imagine) that she might not even vote. Hmmmm, this got me thinking. Is she representative of huge numbers of the populace who don't show up at the polls?

This might have some basis in research findings. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of political communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who co-wrote Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life believes that "The bulk of undecideds end up being non-voters....They're conflicted and torn and can't make up their minds."

Amused Cynics - These are people who are fed up to here with all things political and lump all politicians into the same sinking boat. They are likely to say something akin to, "Politicians are all a bunch of ___________" (fill in the blank with a derogatory term). "I don't trust any of them."

Amused cynics are disgusted by the whole election and threw in the towel a long time ago. Another trait that helps you identify them, is their bemused smiles as they look down on all the poor souls who care deeply about the election and are becoming overwrought. It would take something really momentous to get them energized again.

Well, I've spent the better part of 2 days pondering this. There are experts like Betram Gawronski and Mitchell S. McKinney who've spent their careers teasing out the differences. I've probably left out a couple of other types of undecided voters, and would love to know what you think, because I'm still scratching my head on this one.