The Undecided Voter: Just Like The Unicorn? Not knowing whom you're voting for may just mean you haven't had time to think about it yet. Regardless, one political scientist says, the power of the undecided voter might be a myth, too.

The Undecided Voter: Just Like The Unicorn?

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OK, let's go to a story we read about this week in Frank Cerabino's column in the Palm Beach Post. The story begins this past Tuesday. Frank is driving his son to school...

FRANK CERABINO: Right. I'm taking my 13-year-old son to school, and we like listening to this local sports show. Now, we do listen to NPR on occasion, but sometimes we like to listen to sports.

RAZ: No, that's OK. No apologies necessary.

CERABINO: No. It's true. I mean...

RAZ: It's OK.

CERABINO: ...we do both, but my son likes the sports channel. I do too. And this particular - there's a show on "790 The Ticket," the morning show...


CERABINO: ...with this guy, Marc Hochman, who's very funny. And he frequently talks about things other than sports...


CERABINO: ...which is one of the reasons we like it too.

RAZ: So Frank and son are listening to Marc Hochman's show, and not far into it, the conversation turns away from sports.

CERABINO: That night on television, there was the choice between watching the Yankees and the Tigers play a playoff baseball game or watching the second debate.


CERABINO: And he was carrying on with his partner there, Jonathan Zaslow.


CERABINO: And I heard Hochman say, I'm going to have to tune in at least for that third debate and see, because I'm one of those undecided voters.


RAZ: OK. At this point in the story, Frank Cerabino's ears perk up. He's been thinking that undecided voters are kind of a myth, that there's no way anyone could still be undecided this close to the election.

CERABINO: And the other thing, too, is that we live in Florida. In Florida, you can't get away from your phone ringing all night long, ads back to back to back on television. So the idea that somebody who's smart and literate has not paid attention enough to make a decision, to me, just didn't seem right. But then when I heard Hochman say...


CERABINO: ...that he was undecided, I thought, well, this is an intelligent guy. Maybe I have this all wrong.

RAZ: So Frank Cerabino called him up.

: Yeah, Frank Cerabino called me and he said, you know, I listened to your radio program every morning.

CERABINO: I told him, I said, Marc, I listen to your show and I happened to hear you this morning say you're an undecided voter.

: He said, it strikes me as odd that you wouldn't have made up your mind already. And I shared a secret with Frank. And I said, I'm a Democrat.


: I actually have made up my mind about the election. I was just saying that on the air because it's just not worth it on sports radio to take a side. I mean, this country, we've never been more divided, I don't think. We are 50-50 each way. So I wasn't saying whether I was Democrat or Republican. I was just kind of being aloof on the air and saying, well, I'm still an undecided voter.

CERABINO: Once he told me that, it kind of made me feel reassured because, of course, he's made up his mind. He just says that just because he doesn't want to get into a political conversation on the radio. And then I thought, well, see? I think I'm right.

RAZ: Did you watch that debate with those...


RAZ: ...undecided voters? And what did you think?

CERABINO: Well, I thought if you waterboarded each of those people, they'd tell you exactly who they were voting for. No, I don't, you know, I don't - I think it may be just like the unicorn or something. This character that we like to imagine exists because it makes us feel good.

RAZ: We wanted a more scientific answer to this question, so we called up Lynn Vavreck. She's a political scientist at UCLA. She's been tracking the same group of 44,000 voters all year. She's been measuring which voters remain undecided in the presidential election. And this week, Lynn Vavreck got the same email from many, many friends.

LYNN VAVRECK: So many people send me this clip. You would not believe it.



RAZ: This is the link that Lynn got with a short skit from last week's "Saturday Night Live" on undecided voters. And, well, it's pretty self-explanatory.


RAZ: Now, as we mentioned, Lynn Vavreck says undecided voters are just under 4 percent of the electorate. I asked her who they are and whether there's any truth in that "SNL" skit.

VAVRECK: This is the problem. The premise is wrong. It isn't that they're looking at Mitt Romney and looking at Barack Obama and weighing them. They're not looking yet. So if we really wanted to write a skit that would stand next to "Saturday Night Live," it would be, you know, the single mother who has three kids, who has to get up early to make them breakfast, get them to three different schools because they're in different grades, go to her job, worry about what she's making for dinner. She's like, 20 days until the election? That's an eternity for her.

So we rush a little bit to judgment when we say, ugh, these people are idiots. Well, they're not. They're busy people for whom politics is not the number one concern in their lives.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, this idea that they're - I think to the contrary, I haven't heard people say that they're idiots. I've just heard people say this is the most desirable, you know, this is the group of voters we are after.

VAVRECK: Well, first, I think we should stipulate that the reason they get so much attention from the media is because they are the only thing left that's moving, you know? Nothing is more boring to a reporter than the same thing happening today that happened yesterday. I think it's a little unfair to say that the election is turning on their decision.

It reminds me a little bit of the student who comes into my class at UCLA and says to me, oh, Professor Vavreck, your B is going to keep me out of law school. Well, yeah, my B and all the other B's that you got before mine. So just because mine comes last doesn't mean that it's pivotal. But if the election were a blowout, their decision wouldn't matter at all.

RAZ: You actually have been researching a group of self-declared undecided voters since the beginning of this year, since January 1st, and going back once a week to find out, you know, where they stand. How many of them have changed their minds?

VAVRECK: So among the set of people who claim they are still undecided, many of them actually call themselves Democrats or Republicans. It's about a third Democrat, a third Republican, a third independent. The percentage of people who have changed their mind at least once is roughly 7 percent, moving either from Obama to Romney or Romney to Obama. The undecideds are breaking, and they're breaking in interesting ways.

RAZ: How are they breaking?

VAVRECK: Well, since July, they are, as a whole, breaking for Obama. About 60 percent of undecided voters are women. And women undecided voters who have made up their minds are breaking heavily for the president - 75 percent for Obama, 25 percent for Romney. So women are more of the undecideds, and they're breaking predominantly for Obama.

RAZ: Lynn Vavreck. She's a political scientist at UCLA. Remember, undecided voters are around 4 percent of the population. In key swing states - Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado - that comes out to about 900,000 people. Or, as former Clinton White House adviser Paul Begala said, the American president will be selected by fewer than half the number of people who paid to get into a Houston Astros home game last year.

Speaking of baseball, here's Marc Hochman again, that sports talk show host who said he was undecided, but he's actually voting for President Obama.

: I don't know. I mean, I guess I have a difficult time believing people are really undecided at this point in the election. You kind of - I think you kind of have to know where you're going at this point.

RAZ: Marc, can we talk baseball for a sec?

: Sure.

RAZ: Tigers, Cards or undecided?

: Wow. Who am I rooting for, or who do I think?

RAZ: You sound undecided.

: I, yeah, I am undecided on that one.

RAZ: Stay with us. Coming up, James Fallows, and later, new music from Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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