I’ve often suspected (based on a highly unsystematic series of conversations with classic New Hampshire independents) that most undecided voters are really just low-information voters, who have actually made a decision but don’t quite know how to explain their decision. If you prod, you’ll typically find that they’re “leaning” in one direction or another, or that they “like” one candidate a little bit more, but they can’t articulate the reasons behind their choice. As a result, the bias remains mostly subterranean: they don’t know what they really believe.
I don’t mean to sound condescending to people who aren’t partisan hacks (like myself). Part of me admires such open-minded independence, even if it often correlates with a less informed understanding of the issues. But it’s also important to note that introspective blindness is a basic feature of the human mind, and so we shouldn’t necessarily believe that undecided voters are really undecided.
In the study, researchers asked 132 residents of Vicenza, Italy, where they stood on a controversial ballot issue being debated at the end of last year: the expansion of a local United States military base. The voters also performed a computer test, in which they had to quickly categorize words flashing by on the screen as positive or negative; the words were sometimes paired with photos of the military base. By tracking the number of errors and the time it took to answer, the test estimated a person’s implicit positive or negative associations with the base.
The researchers then had the voters come in a week later and found that of the 33 who had declared themselves undecided, 9 now were in favor and 10 were opposed. And their scores on the computer test the previous week predicted which way they would turn, said one of the authors, Bertram Gawronski of the University of Western Ontario.
“Essentially the people with higher scores on the test tended to go pro, and those with lower scores tended to go contra,” Dr. Gawronski said in a telephone interview.