Undecided voters could be ‘decisive’ in this federal election, say experts

Undecided voters make up a significant portion of the electorate, and swaying them may mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Undecided voters make up a significant portion of the electorate, and swaying them may mean the difference between victory and defeat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

With less than a month to go before Canadians head to the polls to choose their next federal government, more than half of the electorate may still be in the process of deciding which box to check.

Undecided voters have emerged as a powerful force in this 78-day campaign. Data gathered by several polling firms since the beginning of the race show that only 30 to 40 per cent of voters claim they have made their decision and will be sticking to it on Oct. 19 — no matter what.

The people who really have no clue how they might vote (the completely undecided) make up another 9.7 per cent, according to a Nanos poll from the week of  Sept. 15. That’s down from 16.7 per cent in August.

But it’s the so-called “wafflers” who make up the biggest chunk of would-be electors as the major federal parties head into the home stretch. An unusually large number of people are saying they’ve made a choice, but are open to changing their minds, which Abacus Data CEO David Coletto suggests can be chalked up to the length of this campaign.

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“I think voters know that they have lots of time,” Coletto said.

But there may be other factors in play, he noted, such as the high proportion of voters who won’t be able to vote for an incumbent — whether due to an MP retiring or to new riding boundaries — and a historically tight race that has the three major parties polling within just a few points of one another.

“The unprecedented closeness and competitiveness of this election only adds to the uncertainty and indecisiveness,” he said. “A lot of voters are torn between (the Liberals and NDP) in particular. Even when we ask the question, ‘if it were only Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau who would you vote for?’ the country is split 50/50 between those two options.”

Of the completely undecided voters polled by his company in late August, Coletto said, only 5 per cent felt it was definitely best to keep the Conservatives in office. That suggests that they, like their waffling brethren, are leaning toward either the Liberals or the NDP, but may be conflicted about who they feel can usher in the needed change.

On a broader scale, these patterns may be a function of an electorate that’s increasingly volatile, and less loyal their partisan attachments than previous generations of voters, Coletto said.

Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos Public Affairs, agreed that successfully courting the undecided vote could end up making the difference between victory and defeat for the various parties.

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“They can be decisive in a very close election,” he acknowledged.

But according to Bricker, the true size of the undecided camp is much smaller than we think. People who say they “might” change their vote before election day are usually not considering changing it at all, he said.

“The largest block of voters in any election campaign have already made up their minds before (the race) even begins.”

A significant proportion of the undecideds will also opt out of voting at all, he added, which significantly reduces their impact. Exit polls in previous elections have shown that the true number who show up and make a decision only once they’re at the ballot box is about 10 per cent, Bricker said.

So, as election day looms, what can parties do to sway floating voters? According to Coletto, most people will claim to base their decision largely on key election issues like the economy, but research has shown that it’s far more complicated than that.

“At its core, I almost see it as a multi-level process,” Coletto said. “You’re more likely to vote for the party you’re attached to. The next step is the issues, and the leaders and local candidates will then interact with this.”