The election is due tomorrow! A portrait of 2012's last-minute voters

Yahoo News

By Chris Wilson

In the last few days before the election, most pollstersreported that somewhere around 4percent of voters remained undecided between President Barack Obama andGov. Mitt Romney. Campaigns and outside groups spent roughly a billion dollarsidentifying and converting these equivocating voters in the home stretch of thecampaign, both through relentless microtargeting and relentlessmacrotargeting--that is, suffocating the airwaves with a final cannonade of ads.

The bestavailable profilesof undecided voters suggest that they were not so much the civicallychallenged simians onSaturday Night Live as a hyper-disenchanted sliver of the electorateunsure whether their vote was even worth deciding at all.

Research from Yahoo Labs now has identified a clue as towhat was on the minds of these holdout swing voters. In the past few weeks, scientistsin the Barcelona office have analyzed millions of anonymous queries entered in the Yahoo search engineduring the final day of the campaign, focusing on those that mention both Obamaand Romney. This turns up a curious subspecies of the American electorate:Those who felt it was worth deciding whom to vote for, but not until the last24 of the 5,040 hours that elapsed between the time Romneyshored up the nomination and the time polls opened.

As we close the books on the year of the undecided voter--mypick for Person of the Year--here is a portrait of the procrastivoters.

The picture that emerges is a cohort of voters who havegenerally sophisticated concerns for the country but who have absorbed almostno information during the campaign beyond the names of the candidates.

Try this one on for size: “Analysis of healthcare between Romneyand Obama.”

Here we have people who care about the crisis in medicalcoverage in America, understand that the candidates and parties have divergentideas of how to fix it, but how no clear idea what those differences are.

Here’s another: “obama vs romney educational student loans.” Let’s hope thoseloans were not for degrees in political science.

The Yahoo Labs team in Barcelona produced the followinginteractive in which you can see the four top last-minute queries for each offive major topics in the election.

If you click on the queries, you can see the contemporary results for eachquery. While there’s no guarantee that these are the same pages users saw onthe day before the election, we can be reasonably confident that they’resimilar. The demand for articles and advertisements on the differences betweenthe candidates dropped to zero the day after the election, and most of theresults you see here predate the opening of the polls.

And here we are reminded of the critical importance of search engineoptimization, the evil practice by which companies and campaigns game thesearch engine algorithms to return their content higher than the competition.(Everyone, including Yahoo News, participates in this arms race.) When peoplesearched for “will middle class taxes go up under Romney or Obama,” the first resultis to a page on the Obama campaign’s website. You could argue that thisquestion is intrinsically slanted in Obama’s favor, given that the health ofthe middle class was the most sledgehammered subject of the president’sreelection effort. Still, the campaign page appears above a storyfrom the umpire site Politifact and an articleon the conservative You can guess which one people click onmost.

The same is true of the query “Mitt Romney and Barack Obama views on women.”The top resultis a campaign page, but this was another central tenet of the Obama bid.

More often than not, to be fair, most of the top results are to publications.Make whatever jokes you like about the media; voters are much more likely toget a fair assessment of the difference between the candidates from ajournalism shop than from anywhere else.

One of the trickiest dilemmas in political polling is how to predict who willturn out to vote. In fact, we now know from detailed reporting by CNN,TheNew Republic, and many others that the Romney campaign made several wrongguesses about who would eventually decide to turn out and vote, leading to itsfalse sense of confidence on Election Day. The data here suggests that,contrary to what you might expect, these last-minute voters are not purelyself-interested. While you do see some of this, with queries like “who isbetter for federal employees,” others seek the aggregate opinion of others: forexample, “military general officer's endorsements” and another wonders “who are Christians voting for.”

These are not single-issue voters; they are single-proxy voters. It suggeststhat campaigns might better spend some of that advertising bounty running adsfeaturing endorsements by leaders of core constituencies, and spare us allanother 30-second ad featuring the candidate himself. Or axe some of those adsand divert a few more dollars to the search-engine optimization team--a movethat, while terrible for democracy given the shadiness of gaming searchalgorithms, would at least be a small palliative to our ad-addled nerves duringthe baseball playoffs.

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