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For undecided voters, party identification matters

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Lynn Vavreck is an associate professor of political science and communication studies. To read more about her research, go here. This op-ed was posted originally on Oct. 16 in the New York Times.
  
We are down to the last three weeks and just under 3 percent of the electorate is still thinking about whom they’re going to vote for. When they hear that I am working on a project on undecided voters, the first thing people ask me about the remaining undecideds is, “What on earth are they waiting for? Will the debates matter? How will they finally make up their minds?”
 
I tell them that undecided voters are not as anomalous as they seem. The undecided will do exactly what the rest of the electorate has done: They will let the classic drivers of voting decisions affect them. They just do it a little later than everyone else.
 
But most listeners are skeptical when I say that, so I thought I would make what that means clear. Let’s start with one of the most important canonical drivers of voter choice in American presidential elections: party identification. How is it driving late-breaking voters to either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?
 
As usual, these data come from the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project being fielded on line by YouGov. We interview 1,000 people every week and we’ve been doing it since January 1st. All 41,000 people to date also had a 2011 interview in December – so we can track the changes in their choices over time, although most people don’t move off their initial choice.
 
What I’m presenting below are data from our interviews since July 1st, which show how well party identification relates to the choices voters who were undecided in December of 2011 have made compared to how well it relates to the decisions made by people who made choices a year ago.
 
Vavreckchart
 
As you can see, party identification is more closely related to vote choice for people who can make up their mind a year out from an election, but even among undecided voters coming to a decision, party is a strong driver. For each party, 65 percent of the self-identified partisans choose their party’s candidate, compared to a stunning 93 or 94 percent among those who decide well in advance.
 
Interestingly, independents who were initially undecided are breaking more heavily for Obama compared with  the independents who were able to make an early choice (they’re evenly split). In general, each party group makes up about a third of the set of undecided voters (although independents are closer to 40 percent).
 
So party identification matters for undecided voters more than we might think.
 
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