Obama’s hitting a ceiling in polls, unlikely to pick up many undecideds

How should pollsters allocate the undecided vote in a presidential race like the contest between Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.)? Some researchers simply divide the undecided voters proportionately, according to the decided electorate. If Obama has 55 percent of the decided vote, he gets 55 percent of the undecided vote. Others assign undecided voters to candidates based on formulae taking into account partisanship, ideology, gender, age, race, ethnicity, etc.

Candidate pollsters often use a variant of the “What you see is what you get” rule to allocate undecided votes. I learned this rule of thumb in the South during the 1980s. If a Southern Republican was running, we’d assign him none of the undecided vote. Absolutely nothing.

Whatever the Republican was getting in pre-election polls was all he’d get on Election Day, a stark judgment. But it was generally accurate. If Dixiecrats hadn’t decided to vote for the Republican a month before the election, it was unlikely they’d have a last-minute epiphany for the GOP.

Pollsters and insider pundits defer to the “What you see” rule when obsessing over an incumbent pulling less than 50 percent in pre-election polls. Again, the assumption is that even if an incumbent has a 10-point lead in the polls, say 45 percent to 35 percent, he is nevertheless in trouble. The incumbent typically has near-universal name ID. So if everyone knows him, yet a majority is not voting for him, it’s assumed undecided voters will tilt lopsidedly toward his challenger.

The question at hand is what to do in 2008 with voters who are undecided between Obama and McCain. I am leaning toward invocation of the “What you see” rule for Barack Obama, assigning him none of the undecided vote.

Several considerations weigh into my decision. Mostly, I believe that Obama is the surrogate incumbent in this race. He’s the one everyone thinks they know. He’s the celebrity, if you’ll forgive the analogy. So if you have thought a lot about celeb Obama, but aren’t yet voting for him, it’s doubtful that you will suddenly make him your choice. Meanwhile, I think a lot of people have yet to form a substantial and lasting impression of McCain. He’s in a much better position to pick up undecided voters as they learn more about him.

Other factors are likely to block last-minute deciders from taking a chance on Obama. His relative inexperience, his sometimes out-of-the-mainstream policy positions, and even his bid to break the presidential racial barrier, will keep most undecided voters from embracing his candidacy.

Democrats, frustrated with Obama’s showing in recent polls, may get even more frustrated as they see the ceiling being erected over Obama’s vote total.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.