10/31/2008 12:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Undersized Undecideds

Two days ago, Nick Panagakis reopened our debate about the "true" size of the undecided voters in his post on, entitled Supersized Undecideds. Oddly, his post tends to support my argument, rather that contradict it.


First I should note that Nick has misstated my position somewhat, which was explained here and here. In brief, my argument is that pollsters should measure the undecided vote, by including in their vote choice question a tag line, "or haven't you made up your mind yet?" I also argue that pollsters should not insist on asking who voters would choose "if the election were held today," but who would they support on Election Day. I contend that this way of asking voters their candidate preferences produces a more realistic and accurate picture of the electorate than the way pollster currently report the results of their hypothetical, forced-choice vote question.


Nick disagrees, because he thinks that this approach would exaggerate the number of undecided voters. He makes the novel argument that any indecision measured as I suggest would be "calendar-induced" indecision but not "candidate induced" indecision. I don't know of any evidence for the validity of this distinction, but it's crucial to his argument.


To illustrate this point, he presents recent data from the ABC/Washington Post tracking polls, which suggest that currently only 9 percent of voters say they could change their mind before election day, including 3 percent who say it's a "good" chance they could do so, and 6 percent who say it's "pretty unlikely" they would do so. The latter term Nick interprets in his own mental framework as "no chance in h*ll."


Then, as though it's an obvious problem, Nick says, "Imagine if polls up until last week were showing undecideds 10 to 20 points higher - or still showing 9 points greater this week." Yes, let's imagine the 9 percentage point increase in the undecided voter group over what is reported these days.


It's important to note that most polls have been showing just a couple of percentage points of undecided voters, including ABC and the Post. These news organizations did not highlight the 9 percent undecided in their news stories, but instead focused on Obama's lead over McCain by 52 percent to 45 percent - leaving 3 percent unaccounted for (1 percent "other" and 2 percent "undecided"). If you want to know how many voters might "change their minds," you have to look hard for the data. Of course, ABC and the Post are no different from most other polling organizations that regularly suppress the undecided vote.


So, if the polls were to show "9 points greater undecided this week," as Nick feared, that would still be only 10 to 11 percent. That hardly seems excessive, given that the 2004 exit poll found 9 percent of voters saying they had made up their minds in the three days just prior to the election. And just today, the AP reported that about 14 percent of voters were "persuadable," a news story that emphasized the size of the undecided voter unlike most poll stories, which suppress that information.


Just before the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, the UNH Survey Center found 21 percent of voters who said they had not made up their minds (when asked directly, without the hypothetical, forced-choice version that is standard), and the exit poll showed that 17 percent of voters said they had made up their minds on election day.


These numbers suggest that measuring and reporting the size of the undecided voters is an important part of describing the state of the electorate. Not to do so is one of the continuing failures of most media polls.