Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wilson & Allen: The Five Rules Of Thumb

With a week to go until Election Day, in most races it’s down to a handful of late-deciding voters. So this week we bring you Five Rules of Thumb to help understand how these late-deciders will make up their minds and how close races may develop in the last week before Election Day.

From the desks of Chris Wilson and Bryon Allen
Wilson Research Strategies  

Next Tuesday we’ll have a few quick thoughts on races to watch that will report results relatively early in the evening and may be bellwethers for how the night will unfold. Then we’ll take a few weeks off to regroup and digest all of the election night and post-election data as we prepare our analysis of what went right for Republicans, what went wrong, and what it all means.

But first, The Key Numbers:
Generic ballot average: R +7%
Obama disapproval: 49%
WRS House Model Prediction: +52 to +60 R seats

Now, a little assistance in analyzing any political race over the final week...

Five Rules of Thumb for Late Breaking Races

Voters, as we’ve said before, are not big computers making comparisons of all of the trade-offs between the candidates. While all voters are limited or bounded in their rationality and the amount of information they use when making decisions, the last handful of voters to make decisions in a race usually do so in simpler ways than earlier or mid-course deciders.

We’ve talked before about the simplified ways, called heuristics by people who study them, that these voters make decisions.

For those watching races around the country, this simplified decision making process offers us several rules of thumb that can help you understand how the last few undecideds in a race may vote. As with any rules of thumb, there are always exceptions and a year like this may yield many.

Five rules of thumb for late-deciders:

1) Partisans break to their party: Partisan affiliation is meaningful and Republican voters who are undecided late in a race will vote Republican and Democrats will vote Democratic.

a. This is particularly true when we’re talking about self-identification—where voters are affirming their alignment—rather than registration, where some voters may be disaffected from their party but not have changed their registration. Watch for this important difference when analyzing public polls.

2) Independents break to the trend: If partisans are relatively stable, Independents are not. Their feelings about the party in power are what drive the overall trend.

a. Late deciding Independents are even more likely than others to make simple decisions based on their feelings about the direction of the country and the party in power. Look for late-deciding Independents to vote for Republicans in this environment.

3) Late deciders break for challengers: Late deciding voters know much more about incumbents than their challengers and make their decision based on whether or not they want to return the incumbent to office. And, if they haven’t decided to re-elect their incumbent already, they are likely to vote for the challenger.

a. It is important to monitor name ID data in applying this rule-of-thumb though, if the incumbent has done a good job creating negative impressions of the challenger among undecided voters or if neither candidate is well-known (a frequent pattern in down-ballot races), this rule-of-thumb may not apply.

4) Habitual voters vote, less frequent voters may not: Many pollsters include an intensity of interest measure in their polls. These should be used with caution because voters who vote in pretty much every election are going to turn out this year too, regardless of how disinterested or frustrated they are.

a. Looking at the vote history of undecideds may give a better measure of whether they will vote—voters who almost always vote probably will; if most undecideds are infrequent voters, many may stay home.

5) Name ID matters, especially down the ballot: If they know nothing else, late-deciders will vote for the candidate they have heard of in a race.

a. While this rarely makes a difference in high-profile races where both candidates are well-known, in down-ballot races simply having built name awareness can sometimes push a candidate to victory if voters have nothing else on which to base a decision.

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