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COULSON Rebecca

Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Much of the time, we seem to make decisions unthinkingly. Yet the correctness of ‘make’ is ever-relevant: no matter how impromptu they feel, decisions are formed, considered, chosen. They have to be made consciously, by someone capable of deliberation, or they can’t be decisions. That doesn’t always equate to sensible behaviour, of course. Nonetheless, every waking moment, we make choices – some more significant than others.

Now you’re wondering what decision it is that’s playing on my mind. Something really bad, you hope! Sorry to disappoint*, but it’s actually one I haven’t yet made. Yes, I’m going to confess it here on ConservativeHome – that well-reasoned bastion of responsible Brexit: I’m not sure which way I’ll vote on 23 June. But, rather than attempting to explain myself (and risk retreading fear-bleached ground), I’d prefer to look at what it might mean to be undecided in a situation like this.

Who, in general, are undecided voters? How many of them are there? Can we know? A recent YouGov poll tells me I’m one of 20 per cent who are undecided about the EU referendum; Reuters claims that seven per cent of Americans have ‘no firm candidate preference’ for the coming Presidential election.

Interests behind the availability of those figures are clearly manifold: independent pollsters want to predict what undecided voters will do; politicians want to persuade those voters; educationalists want to engage them. Undecided voters – and it is professed voters who are our focus – aren’t one big, companionable gang, though. As with everyone else, certain factors make them more or less likely to behave in particular ways. Women are a little more likely to be undecided, for instance, and the over-70s to vote Conservative. That doesn’t determine their decision-making; it does assist our speculation.

Obviously, different options inspire different kinds of indecision. But let’s consider three usual (not necessarily discrete) groupings within the undecided voter segment: the non-partisan, the uninterested, and the uninformed. It would normally be advisable to concentrate on the first – often, decided voters are decided because of allegiance . Neither of the aforementioned upcoming votes is typically party political, however. Undoubtedly, the EU referendum doesn’t seem so to those of us somewhat obsessed by it and its repercussions for the party we support. Some disagree: there’s no time to go into Labour madness, but we know that many see Bremain as Conservative territory, thanks to Cameron, whilst others assume all Tories to be Eurosceptic ravers. Similarly, it’s pretty evident that the American election isn’t a classic Republican/Democrat showdown – or why sane people gotta hope so.

As well as the non-partisan, I mentioned the uninterested and the uninformed. Engaging the former and helping the latter are standard pursuits for pollsters, politicians, and educationalist  alike. Politicians, in particular, often struggle here, not least through (hopefully) being none of the three things – non-partisan, uninterested, and uninformed – themselves. That sense of unrelatable distance, of course, incites the frustration of another, currently consequential, group of volatile voters: the disillusioned…

Swamping the declaredly uninterested with politico leaflets and cold calls, however, is probably flawed. But a carefully-targeted approach has its place, for sure – and not only with the uninformed. It’s indispensable for converting those voters who are known to be up-for-the-grabbing: the keen first-timers, the once-onside, the single-issue types, and the temptable swingers – such as Reagan Democrats and fans of Blue Labour.

But slippery voters are unnatural aides for pollsters needing to forecast results, or for politicians needing to consolidate their winnings. Following last May’s prediction failures, polling companies have begun to question a greater number of ‘non-politically engaged’ people, in order to make their samples more representative of the general public. Yet, surely, if you’re undecided, being asked how likely you are to come to a certain conclusion (sometimes as specifically as ‘out of ten’) might leave you feeling put on the spot when you don’t know where that spot is. And, although balance is essential for weighting and precision, ‘don’t knows’ and non-voters don’t usually appear on the tabloid’s front-page graph; many readers find misleading satisfaction in solely learning the numbers ‘definitely’ voting each way.

Are undecided voters truly undecided, anyway? For the sake of prediction, it may seem easier to presume so. But feigning indecision not only parries the pollster but is also, plainly, sometimes preferable to admitting what you’ve really concluded. The 2015 Shy Tory thesis may have been largely discredited, yet the notion of ‘I do like that blond chap with the funny hair, but my neighbour calls him a dangerous fool’ could prove as credible as the Bradley Effect.

With a binary choice, however, continued hedging is impossible when it comes to the action of voting. Go on! Pick one! Make your mark, never to be changed! Ok, we’re aware that the undecided, like others, can be influenced by veiled factors such as name recognition or incumbent/insurgent situations. But decisive voting still amounts to a final conscious choice. An assessment of beliefs, values, and potential effects, rather than a random pinning-the-tail-on-the-EU-subsidised-donkey.

Returning to my own deliberation, I have strong suspicions about what I’ll decide in the end (indecision isn’t neatly balanced, remember). Yet, until I have to, I’m holding out. And, to some extent, that’s the same for everyone who knows of a future decision they’ll have to make: anything could happen to change their minds. It’s different from those seemingly unthinking momentary choices. Before it’s made, the content of a decision – however predictable – is nothing, at all.

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*To atone for this, I ran a little vox pop, asking for memorable bad decisions. Here are some of the more satisfying answers: ‘having a voluntary bronchoscopy three hours before a job interview’, ‘buying a horse on a credit card’, ‘inviting my friend to live in my flat without accident-proofing my front door or reinforcing my wine rack’, and ‘burning garden waste on a corn stubble field’.

42 comments for: Rebecca Coulson: What makes undecided voters decide – and are they really undecided in the first place?

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