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Episode 1: The Trouble With Undecided Voters

Christina and I reflect on the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders' campaign: we take a look at his recent events in Nevada, delve into Reuters/Ipsos polling methodology, and finally consider the central question: do undecided voters think we have it right?

Original Script

A: All right. Let’s start with this. So... the same states are always reporting and the same voters are casting their ballots. But the number of stories and the kind of election coverage we get is different in all of these states. And by and large, the difference is that what matters is Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada.

B: Can I ask you about the leading candidates?

A: I think that candidates - probably everyone - is aware that Bernie Sanders, as the mayor of Burlington, has been running for president for a number of years. He is the longest-serving mayor in the state. He was mayor for 17 years, from 2013 to 2017. He was also the mayor of the largest city in Burlington, Mayor Peter Buttigieg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: This city is run by the devil. Bernie Sanders wants to tear it down. Bernie Sanders thinks the government should not exist in order to make a fortune. Bernie Sanders disagrees with his neighbor in Washington. But you know what? That's exactly what he's done. He's broken the law, so you better call the authorities.

A: But the story of Bernie Sanders is that he's been running pretty consistently since 2016, fairly consistently. And I think that one of the more interesting aspects of this campaign so far is the fact that he was able to sort of use a structure that no other candidate of his kind of has - a national office, an organization, all of it at once. And really, if there's one thing that this campaign was able to do, it was to create a huge amount of buzz about him and his campaign. There was a huge, you know, televised rally that he held in New Hampshire, where almost half a million people were watching. And the debate that he had there was a very long opening statement. And he spent a lot of time responding to questions from the moderators, who had some pretty tough questions. And he did that again today in Nevada, where he had another event. But it was a long opening statement. He went near the stage, and he responded to questions, and he answered some of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: What is your top goal for the presidency?

SANDERS: To impeach Donald Trump.

SANDERS: What's your response to the false accusations of election interference?

SANDERS: Look. All I know is obstruction is obstruction.

B: But that's not - that's not a unique message that he's sending. That's also sort of the central question of his campaign, that if you go all the way down the ballot in New Hampshire and Iowa, that's a really strong general election candidate that you can't duplicate.

SANDERS: I will tell you what - the first question my parents asked me when I was growing up - and this may surprise - but if you were a youngster growing up in Burlington in the '70s or something, did you listen to the Velvet Underground?

SANDERS: I mean, they would have been up on this sort of thing, right? They were the Velvet Underground. And, you know, that Velvet Underground music video has got to be one of the top 10 or 20 videos of all time.

B: But that's sort of, like, the central question, is Bernie Sanders going to be the nominee - is he going to be able to build the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that's been a hallmark of his campaign in the first place? I think one of the things going forward that we're going to watch for is - is that field to make up for any losses from 2016. If that happens, it's going to be incredibly interesting.

A: You know, I think we have to acknowledge that this is an older pollster, that the margin of error in this is probably not big enough to get a real meaningful result. But I think that the margin of error in this - it's not a margin of error at all. It's like, oh, my God, Burlington's polling error, how big is it?

B: It's - the margin of error is a terrific bellwether for what it's all about.

A: All right, we'll keep watching that. But one other important thing to note is that the poll we have - the final version of the poll that you guys saw - the final version of the poll - it was from Reuters/Ipsos, and it had an error that we found

B: There is a margin of error of about 2 percentage points. Oh, it was 10 points, but there was a margin of error. But the overall result was that the margin of error for the poll was 2.4 percentage points. So we got the correct number of people who said they were thinking about voting but undecided. But the error was that people thought it was almost 10 percentage points. We had one person who said it was 2.4, and another who said it was 2.2. So there were some people who thought it was 3.1, and another who thought it was 3.1. And so it could be 3.0 or it could be - it could be 3.0. So we need to get back to the original question of whether undecided voters thought we had it right.

A: I think that is the real question. I guess what's I'm asking is do undecided voters think we have it right.

B: I think undecided voters think we do have it right.

A: They think undecided voters think we have it right. It's the margin that matters.

B: Well, it depends. One thing I would say about undecided voters is that they have an incentive to think we have it right.

A: Not undecided voters.

B: Not undecided voters. You know, we know that they don’t consider themselves to be a thing. But undecided voters are a thing. And so if they think that we have it right, something that would change.

A: I mean, I think that’s a great question. What would the margins be like if they thought we’d have it right.

B: The margin that matters is the margin that undecided voters have.

A: Yeah. Well, that’s that’s a great question.

B: I guess the only way to think about it is that it matters how some of the candidates who are left are doing in those marginal places.

A: And what we know from polling about voter preferences that we’ve seen is that undecided voters have a lot more trouble deciding. That’s one thing we know from our polling. Another thing we know is that they tend to be more likely to say they’re very liberal or conservative than they are directly voting for a candidate.

B: I think it’s something that I think is going to have a long term effect on voting in the Democratic primaries because it’s it’s very good for turnout, which is supposed to be one of the metrics that you use to determine who actually makes it to the voting booths next November. But I think it’s good for turnout. And there is this like a kind of intangible thing that people feel like it’s about who they turn out to vote for as opposed to like actual quality like voting is more about feeling like you’re voting for a qualified person. And so it’s good to be like, well, I’m voting for somebody who’s not just an actual person.

A: All right. So we'll have to see how long it takes for the next poll. I'm going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.