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October 18, 2012 8:42 AM Yes, Undecided Voters Are Partisans and Have Opinions

By John Sides

Several of the questions from the last debate led commentators to joke about whether the participants were truly “undecided voters,” as they were billed.  Jonathan Chait, for one, says that “Obama enjoyed friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left.”

It’s important to remember that undecided voters—at least as best we can identify them—are mostly composed of partisans.  Lynn Vavreck and Larry Bartels laid this out almost three months ago:

For example, despite the marked overrepresentation of independents among undecided voters, most undecided voters are not independents. The accompanying figure shows the distribution of party identification among our 592 undecided voters, as recorded in a C.C.A.P. baseline survey conducted with the same people in late 2011. Only three in ten were “pure” independents (those who denied leaning toward either party), while another 7 percent said they were not sure about their party identification. Four in ten were Democratic identifiers or leaners, while the remaining 23 percent  were Republican identifiers or leaners.

Note that the undecided voters in their sample tended to lean more Democratic than Republican, which may also have been true for last night’s participants.

Go read the rest of their post and you’ll see that undecided voters also have opinions on important political issues—ones that might, say, factor into questions they would ask of candidates, about assault weapons or equal pay for women or Benghazi or whatever.

One of the stupider things that people say about undecided voters is that they’re stupid.  But although they may follow politics less closely than other voters, they’re not somehow devoid of values, beliefs, and attitudes that bear directly on politics.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that last night’s questions were something more than anodyne, and may have reflected honest and meaningful opinions.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.