THE BLOG
07/25/2008 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Different Approach to Measuring Vote Choice (and Lack of Choice)

In the recent release of the Granite State Poll, Andy Smith (director of the UNH Survey Center) noted that Barack Obama led John McCain by three percentage points, 46 percent to 43 percent, with 3 percent favoring another candidate, and 8 percent undecided. In the next paragraph, however, he noted that "only 51 percent of likely voters say they have definitely decided who they will vote for, 21 percent are leaning toward a candidate, and 28 percent say they are still trying to decide."

 

The second sentence may seem incompatible with the first - 8 percent of voters undecided, at the same time there are 21 percent leaning and another 28 percent still trying to decide - but it's a compromise that allows Smith to use the standard vote choice question, while still measuring the extent of voter indecision.

 

The standard forced-choice (who would you vote for if the election were held "today") approach produces results showing that more than nine in ten voters have already made up their minds about whom to support for president. Such a finding defies credulity, as I argued in a previous post, because of many other indicators that suggest a substantial proportion of voters have not even begun to think about the election. This was a particularly problematic result during the early primary season, when anyone who had even a dollop of experience with elections knew that primary voters had not made up their minds weeks and months ahead of their respective elections, despite what the polls said.

 

During the New Hampshire primary season, CNN's Keating Holland and Smith experimented with a different approach for measuring voter preferences. I had suggested a dichotomous question up front, asking if voters had made up their minds (or not) who to vote for on primary election day, but Holland and Smith came up with an alternative three-part response - to ask up front if voters had definitely decided whom to support on primary election day, if they were leaning, or if they were still trying to decide. Following this question, regardless of the answer, all respondents were asked the standard vote choice question, whom they would vote for if he election were held today.

 

With this format, the pollsters were able to determine how committed voters were to a choice in January (primary election day), and also to measure their top-of-mind preference if the election were held "today." Asking the undecided question first did not appear to influence respondents' willingness to give a preference to the second question, thus allowing CNN and the UNH Survey Center to report numbers that were comparable to what other polling organizations were doing - but still being able to indicate the size of voter indecision.

 

In the final pre-election poll, the CNN/UNH Survey Center results were as close to the actual outcome on the Republican primary as any of the other polling organizations. On the Democratic side, the polling results were similar to the average of the other polling organizations, showing Obama over Clinton, when in fact Clinton won. But CNN and the Survey Center were able to announce up front that with three days to go, 21 percent of the Democratic voters said they were still trying to make up their minds - suggesting the potential for movement.

 

Because the experiment appeared to provide additional insight into the state of voters' minds, Smith has continued to ask the undecided question up front in the general election polling. That's what gave him the results noted at the beginning of this post.

 

There are several ways to report the results. In accordance with standard practice, Smith focuses on the "today" results. Alternatively, he could focus on the results that treat the "still trying to decide" as though, in fact, they are undecided. Both results are shown in the table below:

 

 

TABLE 1

Standard Vote Choice Question

Results Filtered

%

%

Obama

46

38

McCain

43

32

Other

  3

  1

Undecided

  8

  29*

 

100

100

*Among those who said they had "definitely" made up their minds, 2 percent (1 percent of whole sample) said there were undecided who to vote for, giving 29 percent, instead of 28 percent, in the undecided column..

 

 

A more detailed table of filtered results would show the following:

 

 

TABLE 2

%

Definitely Obama

28

Lean Obama

10

Other/Undecided (1%/29%)

30

Lean McCain

10

Definitely McCain

22

TOTAL

100

 

By the way, it's clear that McCain does better than Obama among people who say they have not yet decided whom to support, which is why the margin is 6 points in the filtered version and just 3 points in the standard version. Table 3 shows the crosstabs:

 

 

TABLE 3

Decided

Leaning

Still trying to decide

 

%

%

%

Obama

54

47

30

McCain

44

46

38

Other

  1

  3

  8

Undecided

  2

  4

24

(Weighted N)

N=239

N=98

N=128

 

If the above results are typical of national polls, then one reason that McCain may be competitive with Obama, despite the underlying factors that suggest a Democratic election year, is that voters who haven't yet made up their minds are more likely to have heard McCain's name. When pressed by pollsters who they would support "if the election were held today," they mention the more familiar name. That doesn't mean, however, that come election day, they will actually vote for McCain.

 

So, which is the more accurate representation of the results - the one showing just 8 percent undecided, or the one showing 29 percent undecided?

 

My own preference would be to report the results as shown in Table 2, or in Table 1 in the "filtered" column. Those results are not comparable to the way most polling organizations present their figures, but I think they give a more accurate picture of the state of the electorate's collective preferences than the standard approach. After all, it's difficult to argue that at this time in the campaign season, 95 percent of voters have already made up their minds.

 

However, the approach that Smith follows may be seen by the news media as more acceptable - initially focus on the standard vote choice results, but also follow up that presentation with figures showing how committed or undecided the electorate is, based on the undecided question that is asked first.

 

Comments?