who should I vote for

“Who Should I Vote For?”: How Soon People Decide in Elections

The U.S. is in the midst of its every-four-years tradition of hosting a long, drawn out election for the next president. Opinions harden, campaigns intensify, and the whole country is thrown into a zoo of scandal and inspiration. You might be left asking, “who should I vote for?” Or maybe you’ve already decided.

voting decisionsAt some point, people have to pick the person they’ll vote for. For some, the answer seems obvious. Either they always vote along party lines and the choice is made for them or they just know their favorite from the beginning. The research on public opinion tends to show that most people make up their minds way before the campaigns really get rolling. For example, one study tracked voter preferences leading up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election and found that 83% of people who ended up voting had made up their minds before September.

For some other people, though, it can take longer to pick their preferred candidate. This can last up until they step foot in the voting booth and make their final vote.

Public opinion research has been looking at when people decide during an election. Who are the people who decide early and who are the people who put off reaching a conclusion about the candidates? Let’s look at three things we’ve learned from looking at large scale public opinion polls.

1. Do You Have Strong Party Allegiance?

When you know exactly where you stand on the political spectrum, voting is pretty easy. One of your choices comes “pre-approved” by your political party, so why not just go with that person? Even though politicians use the month or two before the election to campaign especially hard for people’s votes, that campaigning doesn’t matter as much for people with strong party affiliations.

Plenty of data show that this is the case. In one example, researchers asked a bunch of Canadian voters, after a big election: when did you decide? They also asked them how committed they were to their political parties. Their answers revealed that people who had made their decision before the campaigning began in full force were people with stronger political party affiliations than people who didn’t decide until after campaigning began.

2. How Interested Are You in Politics?

Of course, it’s not just party affiliation that matters. Another important factor is simply how engaged a person is with politics. Is he or she informed on the issues and interested in the outcome?

The same study that looked at when Canadian voters made up their minds also showed that people who decided before the campaign tended to be more interested in politics and were paying more attention to media. A more recent study of American voters shows the same pattern: the most engaged voters are the ones who tend to decide on a candidate early in the process.

3. How Fierce is the Campaigning?

So far, it seems like so many people make up their minds before a candidate really starts campaigning. So is the campaign a waste of time? Will they ever end up swaying the vote or are people too set in their predispositions?

Not quite. Campaigns can certainly still matter. One study looking at the 1976 election between Ford and Carter found that the more people paid attention to TV and newspaper campaigning, the more likely they were to make their decision during the campaign instead of before it.

voting decisions

One newly published study goes a step further. They had data on voters’ political opinions in the months leading up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, and they could see the moment at which a particular person settled into his or her choice for president. Was it during the summer before the campaign? Right at the start of the campaign? Right at the last minute?

They also knew how interested these people were in politics and more interestingly: where they lived.

Some states are known as “battleground” states. These are the states that seem like they could go either direction, so candidates pour tons of money into their advertising budgets in these particular states.[1]  The researchers identified battleground states based on the New York Times’ report of early fall campaign ad expenditures. These states included: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The results of this study showed that the intensity of the candidates’ campaigning mattered especially for people who weren’t already interested in politics. For people who were more interested, like we saw before, they made up their minds before the campaigning even started. But for people less interested in politics, the ones who lived in battleground states ended up making up their minds sooner than people living in so-called “safe states.”

The lesson here is that campaigning matters, and it helps cement people’s opinions earlier in the race if they weren’t the type of people who already made up their mind.

4. How Conflicted Are You?

Even though we’ve seen that campaigning matters, there’s one last wrinkle in the story. Not only is campaigning important overall, but the type of information that’s getting spread can determine how soon people make up their minds.

who should i vote for

One study looked at whether or not people lived in a place where the campaigning was very mixed. They also considered whether people felt especially conflicted about their choices. Either of these things would seem to prolong someone’s decision.

These researchers surveyed people in the Minneapolis area as they left the polling centers during the 2000 Minnesota senate race. They asked everyone: “How long before the election did you decide to vote the way you did for the U.S. Senate race?

They also asked everyone what they thought of each candidate to see how conflicted they were about the decision, as well as how often they read the Pioneer Press (a newspaper with especially mixed coverage of the election).

All in all, people were most likely to delay their voting decision when they were conflicted and read a lot of mixed information about the candidates. When you’re already torn between candidates, and you keep reading articles in support of each of the candidates, it takes a long time to finally come to a conclusion and settle on a preference. But if the answer seems clear to you or you find yourself reading one-sided election coverage, it doesn’t take you nearly as long.[2]  If you’re wondering, this study also found that people made up their minds sooner when they were more interested in the election and had stronger political affiliations.

Who Should I Vote For? Make Up Your Mind!

Maybe you’re still deciding what to do in the current election. Trump? Hillary? Johnson? A goat? But if you’ve already decided, and you’ve known who your vote for months now, it might be because you have a strong political ideology, a deep interest in politics and the election, and no amount of conflict about who to support.

We’ll see how things play out in the remaining months before the election. Sure, most people have made up their minds. But there are those remaining conflicted and/or less interested voters out there whose choice is too soon to call.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  The researchers identified battleground states based on the New York Times’ report of early fall campaign ad expenditures. These states included: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
2.  If you’re wondering, this study also found that people made up their minds sooner when they were more interested in the election and had stronger political affiliations.

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