When Do Undecided Voters Decide?

The front page of yesterday’s Wichita Eagle featured an article by McClatchey Newspapers columnist Steven Thomma headlined Analysts: McCain Has a Shot At Upset. The day before, Dick Morris penned an item for The Hill indicating his expectation that Undecideds Should Break for McCain. A random sample of recent newspapers and magazines around the country would unearth myriad examples of the late election “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and “miracles can happen” variety. They’re a staple feature of nearly every election. But, realistically, what are the chances that John McCain could “run the table” with undecided voters and pull off a stunning last minute upset contrary to all conventional wisdom?

That an Obama victory is the overwhelming expectation of informed analysts should be evident to any impartial observer. Perhaps the best indicator of expectations is the Intrade Prediction Market, where real dollars are on the table, not mere words: Obama is bid at just shy of 83 cents on the dollar as I write, McCain at 17 and a half cents. Some gutsy speculators are going to make a boatload of cash if McCain pulls off the upset.

The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Obama leading 49.9 to 43.7, a spread of 6.2 points, and just shy of 50%. Print a listing of those national polls and more than the latest 50 in a row show an Obama lead. You have to go all the way back to the GWU/Battleground Poll of September 21-25 to find any poll with a McCain lead.

And, insofar as state polls go, RealClearPolitics has Obama over McCain 311 electoral votes to 142, a spread of 169, with 85 votes in “toss-up” states. When the toss-ups are allocated by current polling averages, Obama extends his lead to 364 to 174, a spread of 190 electoral votes, and far beyond the 270 required to win. FiveThirtyEight.com, a website which specializes in what they characterize as Electoral Projections Done Right, has Obama at 344.1 and McCain at 193.9.

So, how about it? Can McCain pull in virtually all the currently undecided voters (McClatchey lists about 8 percent of all voters in that category, others more, many less) and win by a whisker?

The short answer is: probably not. (See, for example the CNN Politics blog analysis from two weeks ago in McCain Faces Uphill Climb In Campaign’s Final Weeks). Despite evidence that Obama’s Edge Over McCain Narrows (according to the Fox News poll), such tightening is commonplace in the final days of most elections, and the gap is simply too broad for McCain to bridge. Moeover, the RealClearPolitics composite polls for Bush states Colorado (Obama +6.5), Florida (Obama +3.5), Nevada (Obama +7.0), North Carolina (Obama +2.6), Ohio (Obama +5.8 ) and Virginia (Obama +6.5) demonstrate the extraordinary challenges for McCain in the electoral vote, which is, of course, what counts.

Still, as Washington Post writers Robert Barnes and Jon Cohen suggest, Predicting the Votes of the Undecided is Unusually Hard This Year. The most interesting comment I’ve seen on the probable tendencies of self-described undecideds is that of partisan Democratic pollster Stan Greenburg, in response to McCain pollster Bill McInturff’s memo discussed in the Post article. Suffice it to say that Greenburg sees little opportunity for McClain to close the gap.

But for the long run, Science Daily reports concerning an even more intriguing study under way, Harvard University’s Project Implicit, in Undecided Voters May Already Have Decided, Study Suggests. At the project they are asking the question as to whether “undecided” voters actually make their choices before they themselves consciously realize that they have, based upon implicit preferences of which they may well be unaware. Nearly 25,000 have participated in their test of attitudes — you can participate, too — and after the election they intend to assess their data in light actual voting behavior. Should be interesting.

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