undecideds22 Nov 2004
Christopher Hayes spent 7 weeks knocking on doors in Wisconsin, trying to convince undecided voters to vote for Kerry. His observations in the TNR last week (yes, it requires registration, see bugmenot) range from insightful to humorous (if perhaps also borderline condescending). Read this article and tell me that some of the profiles he describes don’t cause you to envision specific “undecideds” you may have talked to in the past.
For example, his point that “Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don’t enjoy politics.” fits my dad perfectly.. Conversely, “The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush.” describes my friend Nick’s political reasoning perfectly:
Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush’s Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn’t matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better. Yeah, but what’s Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naïve. C’mon, they’d say, you don’t really think that’s going to work, do you?
To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry’s promise to bring in allies was a lame idea–after all, many well-informed observers did. But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care. On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation–but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry’s ability to fix things. Undecided voters, as everyone knows, have a deep skepticism about the ability of politicians to keep their promises and solve problems. So the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general. Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush’s failures as badly as Bush was.
As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future. Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed–thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry’s case. Needless to say, I found this logic maddening.
“Maddening” is an understatement. Perhaps his most interesting observation is that undecided voters simply don’t think in terms of issues:
Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured–a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example–but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d just asked them to name their favorite prime number.
He concludes by suggesting that Democrats need to construct a “popular, accessible political vocabulary” to convince undecided voters that the issues they face are actually political ones. Maybe we should start by debunking the already existing Republican equivalent.