undecided voters: a very dubious argument

In a stunning example of the power of words like “neuroscience” to make us overlook half-baked arguments, today’s NYT contains an article by two neuroscientists suggesting that undecided voters are just more deliberative than the rest of us. They don’t have to make up their minds until Nov. 4, so they don’t.

Two problems. First, no evidence is presented that the people who are undecided are actually more deliberative. Second, it’s difficult to imagine what more information a thinking voter might need in order to make a decision! It’s all out there–whether you’re voting on foreign policy, domestic policy, blatant racism, record, judgment, party ID, whatever. Why is it rational to stay undecided, particularly in the light of the fact that deciding now could both lower the cost of voting (at least in early voting states) and raise the value to the extent that you’re being polled or asked your opinion.

Sheesh. How do these half-baked arguments make their way into the newspaper of record?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

7 thoughts on “undecided voters: a very dubious argument”

  1. How do these half-baked arguments make their way into the newspaper of record?

    By way of their effects on the sale of subscriptions and advertising space, I think.

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  2. Out of the mountains of news noise, this? What about all the imagined trend pieces? Reporters’ idea of trend data seems to be several anecdotes from friends this year, and several anecdotes from friends last year.

    And then sometimes the press report on events as if they are clueless about PoliSci 101. For example, after Obama prevailed over Clinton, NPR did a story about whether Hispanics, the majority of whom had supported Clinton, would shift their support to Obama, or whether they would support McCain instead. If they had any idea of the power of race / ethnicity on voting, you would think they would realize that such a question is silly. But there’s so much space on TV, radio and paper to cover, they have to cover non-issues. There’s not enough important things to fill all the pages and airspace. That’s why I think that, in general, one shouldn’t read the news except for entertainment purposes. If I think of reading a news article, I ask myself, “Would I read this article in 1 week?” If the answer is no, then why read it in the first place? Its a waste of time. That’s why I think its great that most people choose to watch TV or read about celebrities than read things like the NYT. The NYT is the first draft of history, most of which is just noise anyway. The returns to reading the NYT are high if you just read it say, once a week, but the returns would seem to drop substantially as frequency of reading increases.

    Its great to have the NYT in a way, but in another sense the NYT is worse than the Post or AM New York, for example. I am wont to take the NYT seriously, which is probably a mistake. Also, the length of the articles are absurdly long. The signal to noise ratio is pretty low for news. And noise covered extensively is worse than noise covered briefly. I don’t have a good memory, and am a slow reader, so the NYT is like a recipe for learning ephemeral stuff.

    This is why I no longer listen to news on NPR, or read the New York Times. Its mostly just noise covered extremely well. I guess some people are super-efficient and smart enough to do that and do everything else they want to do — people like Paul Krugman, who works as though there is a clone of himself.

    But for someone of my level of efficiency ( and I think I’m not alone here) I’d rather have my news-noise entertaining and bite-sized.

    So I watch local news (NY1-great channel) and read AM New York — at least its entertaining and the crossword puzzle is actually doable for the non-Mensa. And AM New York (or its equivalents elsewhere) is free.

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  3. The best evidence that undecideds are more deliberative: come election day half of them won’t even vote!

    And undecideds are kind of irrelevant now anyway. This was an impression of mine but the folk(s) over at 538 did a nice job of breaking this down more systematically last night (http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/10/undecideds.html).

    They need to drop the undecided news and focus more on the GOTV efforts in the key states.

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  4. Thanks for the great info! Too Shy to Stop writer Lauren Bucci just wrote an article about websites that claim to help undecided votes. You can read the piece here.

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  5. I find that the Financial Times usually has short, succinct articles without any noise whatsoever. It may very well be the best daily in the English-speaking world.

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