A voter’s behavior at the polling place reduces to a decision. Hold that idea.
This is analogous to a shopper’s behavior. How much time does a shopper spend in deciding what tomato in a pile of tomatoes will provide the biggest payoff in return for their investment of “selection” time? Why is it that a given shopper will select several candidate tomatoes And then from this selection decide on a single tomato?
We enter, here, into the realm of behavioral economics. Although it must be true that in a given display of tomatoes one tomato (presumably) is objectively and certainly the best tomato, in fact, given a maximum amount of time to make the choice, a shopper will instead opt to deploy a practiced heuristic so as to dramatically cut their time investment. The shopper does this while, at the same time, they expect this lesser time is the appropriate time to invest toward realizing the ‘great tomato’ payoff. Spending more time is not worth it.
Take this thought problem: you pull fifty people off the street and line them up in front of a display of tomatoes and a display of apples. You then give each an opportunity to select one tomato or apple. Most people will invest very little time in deciding whether they go for a tomato or an apple. Their pick between the two will turn out to simply be a matter of their foregone preference. Given the choice between the two, each person will go for what they already prefer and then employ their favored rule of thumb.
However, for some it will be a hard choice between the two. They will be ambivalent to some degree. The considerable differences between tomato and apple in such cases are not instrumentally decisive differences. In this group, some might ask to check out both before they commit to one or the other.
Returning to voter behavior, what would you guess is the situation given voters who cannot decide between the tomato of Obama and the apple of McCain?
I’d like to offer several hypotheses about this group.
1. Having no strong foregone preference, most members of this group are likely not to spend a lot of time making their decision.
2. Some members of this group approach their decision not as if it is between a tomato and an apple, but rather is between two examples more similar than different.
Is it likely that persons who are willing to spend a lot of time investigating differences between options, nevertheless also more disposed toward a foregone preference?
If 15% of a national electorate are undecided, and this group is given as the portion of the electorate upon which the election will turn, is it then the case that elections turn upon persons who will invest the least amount of time in deciding between two candidates?
Consider what might be involved in a voter’s having to decide between Obama and McCain. Since the policy positions between the two are mostly stark, what other features of the candidates would blur those difference and reinforce a voter’s ambivalence?
There are cases for which substantial policy differences are not instrumentally decisive. If someone can’t decide between Obama and McCain, it is very likely that their ambivalence vectors around something other than policy differentials.
(I spend a lot of time researching various data in the political realm. However, as far as my voting behavior goes, where I feel my time is worth investing in deciding who among the democratic apples is the apple of my eye, it is for me a foregone conclusion that I will vote for a democrat. I rush to the apple display! I will also spend a lot of time researching, as a matter of opposition intelligence, the opposing republican. And, I would suppose that my total time invested puts me in a marginal group, investment-wise; say in the group of people who spend 5+ hours a week investigating political information. One mitigating behavioral factor suggested by this is that the extra time invested after I’ve made my decision does not increase the possibility of a greater return. From this it could be suggested that a much greater ratio of return is gained by the person who invests almost no time in making their decision. However, keep in mind this low time cost is also attachable to a low expectation of return, and so there is the extreme represented by most non-voters, no time cost-expectation of zero return.)
[See: Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron Cass R. Sunstein; Richard H. Thaler
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
by Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein
review of above: Economics: Which Way for Obama? By John Cassidy; NY Review of Books; June 8, 2008]
Darnit! On the other hand, voting behavior may be largely driven by effects due to implicit (unconscious) processes. In which case, the time sunk by undecided voters may be commensurate with what is necessary to efficiently confirm their bias. If so, such voter’s ambivalence could be termed pseudo-ambivalence.