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What do we know about voters who say ‘don’t know’ in election polls?

With less than a week to go in the 2019 UK election, many people are undecided. And with margins so narrow, the people who still say they don’t know who they will vote for could have a significant influence on the outcome.

Ongoing research at the University of Manchester, using international survey data and in-depth interviews, is examining the nature of what it means to state that you “don’t know” when you are asked who you are going to vote for in an election.

“Don’t know” voters are often overlooked in the reporting of opinion polls. However, recent YouGov polling has highlighted that 17% of people don’t know which way they are going to vote. ICM put it at 12%. Women and younger people were more likely to say they don’t know.

Answering questions involves complex cognitive tasks. We have to understand the question, for a start, and then we have to retrieve the information we need to answer it from our memory before articulating it into an answer. A “don’t know” response can be driven by what is termed satisficing – where respondents take cognitive short cuts. Saying “I don’t know” could be an easy way to express more complex feelings of indifference or conflicted feelings. We might have a view but not want to express it or we might feel uncertain about our view because we don’t have enough knowledge about the question.

Research suggests that ambivalence varies in relation to the information an individual has available, their motivation and their cognitive style. When people are overloaded with information they are more likely to say they don’t know when asked a question. Some survey respondents who answer “don’t know” can also take longer to answer, suggesting genuine uncertainty.

The 2019 UK election campaign has been characterised by an almost overwhelming number of policy promises (some of which overlap between parties) and what have been seen by many as unrealistic spending pledges. Indeed, information overload has been identified in our research with older voters. As one 73-year-old female interviewee commented:

It’s almost impossible to make your mind up about anything now. There’s too much information.

Torn loyalties

Linked to this issue is evidence that party loyalty is in decline in the UK and vote switching is on the rise. Research by the Hansard Society found that only 34% of people are a “very” or “fairly” strong supporter of a political party. Evidence from the British Election Study highlights increased levels of vote switching in recent elections including between supporters of the Conservative and Labour parties.

In recent research from Ipsos Mori, 40% of people said they might change their mind about which party they will vote for ahead of the election. It also showed that 7% of people said “don’t know” when asked which policy issues will help them decide which party to support. Evidence suggests that people who voted Labour at the last election are more likely to state that they don’t know who they will vote for this time compared with Conservative supporters. And Labour voters who voted Leave in 2016 are the most likely to state they don’t know who they are going to vote for.

Corbyn meets voters in the final week of the campaign. PA

Political parties are not always clear about where they stand on particular issues and it can be questioned how believable their promises are. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has questioned the credibility of the policy spending promises of all the main parties.

Linked to this is that people feel powerless and that they have no influence over political decision making.

As one 82-year-old woman we interviewed commented:

“I always dedicated myself to voting, but I now don’t have any faith in the government and I’m not going to be a hypocrite, the politicians don’t care.”

In an age of information overload and uncertainty, it is important to respect people who are finding it difficult to make up their minds. Political parties and governments need to be held to account for their policy commitments both during an election and when in government. Alongside competing for voters, political parties should be able to agree on what works across as many policy areas as possible. There are too many long-term social problems, from child poverty and homelessness to social care and climate change, that get passed from one government to the next.

The “don’t knows” and how they vote will be an important factor in the outcome of the election, particularly if the Conservative lead in the polls starts to reduce. It is worth remembering that in the last general election, four seats were won with majorities of fewer than 25 votes – including Fife in Scotland, which was won, by a majority of only two votes.

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