All the talk this morning is about the VP debate last night. There’s all kinds of places where you can get details on what was said, how many times Biden lied through his painted teeth, and what the ‘instant poll’ or ‘focus group’ said immediately afterward, so you don’t need me for that. What I am writing about today, is something a bit more intricate, and yet I think important to the race remaining.
My wife wanted to see the debate on CBS, so we got to hear what Ms. Couric thought of it. I don’t usually have much respect for the opinion of Ms. Couric, but she made a good observation, though she did not carry it through to its significant conclusion. Kouric said that Governor Palin was speaking to Senator Biden, the moderator, the audience, and the television viewers, while Senator Biden, in Couric’s words, was “speaking as if Palin was not even there”. That is, Biden was trying to drive home attacks on McCain and pressing his points about the Obama campaign directly to the home viewers. Biden and Palin were going after different target audiences. My hunch is that both nominees accomplished their tactical goals, but only one of them chose the right target.
It’s easy to get caught up in minute details of the election, but it’s critically important to understand how a candidate builds up support. It does not, despite what you may have read or seen or heard, happen in great waves or sudden bursts of enthusiasm. And most people who have made up their mind to support a candidate, do not quickly or casually change their mind. The publicly released polls are not accurate in the image created, that the voters are flighty and chaotic. Quite the opposite, if history is considered.
With firmer facts in hand, we can simply say that the race remains in doubt, because a portion of the voters have not made up their mind. They may well lean towards McCain or to Obama, but there is a portion which has decided and cannot easily be convinced to change their opinion, and there is a small portion which will not make a choice and so will sit out this election, but there is also a significant portion remaining, who are still waiting for a candidate to convince them to give their vote to that candidate. And so it is happening, small pieces at a time, and along the way the candidates may well not be certain themselves about just how much support they have in certain key places. This is true in many states, where the race is close enough that a well-focused effort could make all the difference.
Without overdoing the numbers, it is safe to say that most Democrats are supporting or will support Obama, and that most Republicans are supporting or will support McCain. There are, in the end, just three groups in play:
Republicans unsure about McCain-Palin, and Independents leaning towards McCain, but still not locked in, a group of about 2.9% of voters;
Democrats still uncomfortable with Obama-Biden (including the PUMAs), and Independents leaning towards Obama, but still not committed, a group of about 3.6% of voters; and
The pure Independants, who will not vote or who will go for a minor candidate unless McCain or Obama convinces them they deserve their vote, a group of about 8.0% of voters.
Palin spoke to the undecideds, while Biden spoke to his base. Guess which mission was more important to this election?
UPDATE – How the Math Was Done
Some folks are curious as to how I got my numbers for undecideds. I got them from the internal party affiliation results from the three major polls in the past month which have published them.
Gallup, CBS, and Fox News all publish the internal party-identified support in their internal data. When you take out the support for Obama, McCain, and ‘Other’, what’s left is your undecideds. When you consider that the poll starts with registered or ‘likely’ voters, that’s pretty significant. When you plug the undecideds back in for each group, multiplying by their proportion of the population, the result is that undecided sub-group’s portion of the total voting population. So, taking the numbers from each of the three polls, and averaging them together, I get the numbers I used for today’s article.
Now, I have to admit that the actual number could be a little higher or lower than I claimed, for three reasons. First, since the three polls differed in their numbers (though not greatly), averaging them may lessen the accuracy of the analysis. Of course, I have no way to say which of the three is the ‘most reliable’, so averaging them is the best course to acknowledging all of them to an equal degree. Second, folks who do not make up their mind by the election may just not vote at all. I do not think this is very likely, however, because at a minimum these are voters who have registered, and who show some interest in the election as evidenced by their participation in the poll. So I believe these people are valid respondents, representing an actual demographic whose importance to the election is growing as we move ahead. And third, while I do try to be objective in analysis, as a human being I impose some subjectivity into my opinions, even when I try to avoid it, and certain assumptions were made in developing the template. On the other hand, while we all have biases, awareness of such bias, open acknowledgement of the bias and attempts to test for and correct against material flaws in the work, and the evidence from past tests using similar assumptions lead me to believe that I have produced a valid model.