Nick Panagakis is president of Market Shares Corporation, a marketing and public opinion research firm headquartered in Mt. Prospect, Ill.
This is in response to David Moore's July 25th column about use of a broader measure of voter indecision. For the first time, I also asked a similar question before the February 5th Illinois primary but am now having doubts about it's usefulness.
In the final CNN/University of New Hampshire primary poll, over 90% of voters stated their preference for a candidate in the commonly used "if the election were held today" forced choice question. That poll had Obama up by 9%. But Clinton won by 2.6 points. The candidate estimate error was 5.8 points, that means 5.8% high on Obama and 5.8% low on Clinton, near the average of all NH polls. When voters in that poll were asked if they were definite, leaning, or "still trying to decide", some 21% said still trying to decide which was the subject of Moore's blog.
Among the 21% who were "still trying to decide", that could mean 6% of all voters switched from Obama to Clinton or, a net 6% more voters switched from Obama to Clinton than from Clinton to Obama. The 21% more than covers such movement.
Other New Hampshire polls showed comparable numbers: Gallup's "could change mind" and in late December the LA Times' "might end up voting for someone else" both yielded 27%. I checked polls in other states that asked similar questions of decided voters and show comparable high percentages with no evidence that such mind-changing ever took palace.
My first issue is that the forced choice "if the election were held today" question historically comes close to the actual outcome, even though some voters may not have reached final closure when asked. I wouldn't call this "indecision" after so many could decide in response to the standard question. I believe it means some voters who are wiling to decide on a candidate in a poll won't rule out the possibility that some incident or disclosure, between now and election day, could lead them to vote otherwise. Isn't that what campaigns including negative elements are all about? This response is more conditional, perhaps remote, depending on unknown future events, not indecision. If it were indecision, a lot more polls than New Hampshire would have been be off the mark this Spring. In the post New Hampshire period, I cringed when I saw such numbers being reported. I think they de-values polls. There must be some better way of reporting these findings rather than "candidate A is up by 9 points - but 30% could change their minds".
During the week preceding the February 5th Illinois primary, our Chicago Tribune poll showed Obama ahead by 31 points in that primary, very close to the actual outcome. Our poll also got a similar number just days before election day - 24% of decided and leaners said they could "still change their minds". Could it be that a few days before any election, somewhere around 20%-25% of voters in all polls always say they could still change but most never do? Based on the Illinois outcome, not many minds were changed as is the case in most polls. To me, it seems that how voters would decide today has served us pretty well with some exceptions such as New Hampshire. (The question read: "Between now and next Tuesday, is there some chance that you could still change your mind about voting for this candidate...or have you definitely made up your mind?")
Re-calculating our Illinois Democratic poll numbers to combine possible mind-changers with undecideds as Moore did with the New Hampshire poll resulted in: Obama 44%, Clinton 16%, Others 1%, and 39% undecided. (The apparent reason for 39% here was an increase in conventional undecideds due to Edwards dropping out the day before interviewing began. Edwards did have 15% support in Illinois in a poll conducted a few days earlier by St. Louis Post-Dispatch,/KMOV-TV poll.) According to MSNBC, the NEP Illinois exit poll found 19% of voters who said they decided in the last 3 days, the period after we completed interviewing, close to our conventional undecideds. But the recalculated 39% undecided above that included voters who could "still change their mind" is twice as high as the 19% of voters NEP found deciding on a candidate during the 3 days before that election.
In the Illinois Republican primary, 36% of voters and leaners said they could change their minds. McCain was ahead in the poll by 23 points and went on to win by 19 points, a 2-point error on candidate estimates. Moore did not include a comparable number for the New Hampshire Republican primary but all polls matched the outcome.
In conclusion, perhaps in the New Hampshire Democratic primary this year such mind-changing took place. The state has always been a minefield for pollsters. The challenge for pollsters was mostly situational. This was a fluid situation, akin to trying to catch a falling knife. The campaign period was compressed, shortest-ever in New Hampshire, only 5 days after Obama's Iowa upset. Obama was described as over-confidant. Clinton perceived as a victim by some.
There were methodological challenges. Turnout that this year turned out to be historically high (a forewarning for us pollsters in later states). Only 52% of voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary were registered Democrats according to the exit poll and 19% were first-time primary voters, a challenge for likely voter screening. According to one pollster, their best estimate of the New Hampshire outcome was based on all registered voters; i.e., no sample reduction at all for likely voters. The final chapter on this election has not yet been written. Neither has the value of routinely reporting that 25% or more of voters are undecided.