Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Undecided Voters

We hold undecided voters in far too-high esteem in this country. What we often call "waffling" "fence-riding" and "playing it safe" suddenly become "prudence" and "rational consideration" during even-numbered years. If you think I'm getting ready to make some point about how if you're not for Obama you're obviously insane, don't worry I'm not. How many more of those blog posts do you really need?

For some odd reason I subjected myself to the post-debate analysis on NBC tonight, and on the program was a panel of undecided voters all discussing their thoughts about the two candidates. The set-up was basic: undecided voters explain their opinion of the candidates and how it's changed following the debate they just watched. If one of the voters "decides" and commits to a candidate they are removed from the panel. That obviously creates massive selection bias (since if candidate A -call him "Obama"- won the first two debates and people committed, the panel would consist largely of candidate B-leaners) but that's neither here nor there. It drove me crazy listening to these people repeat drivel like "Well Obama really showed me something tonight when he discussed his health care plan in more detail" or "McCain sounded very confident on Iraq." ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Here's a radical idea for you: political candidates are little bundles of policies. You think the CEO of Pfizer is saying "Who cares about the tax breaks, I just want to know which candidate looks more "presidential"? I assure you he is not. He is voting (and "donating") based on cold hard issues, and if you don't? If you vote based on who you can have a beer with or who has a vagina or who speaks well... well then you're going to get Pfizer's wet dream plus ovaries, a pick-up truck and a toastmasters membership. If you want to vote on issues, go take the candidate compatibility quiz or head to and click "voting records." If you want rhetoric, imagery, and delusion though, go watch a politician speak or debate.

Here's how the undecided voter panel must prepare to buy a car: "Gee well I'm really undecided about the truck I should buy; I guess I should watch two competing commercials."

Undecided Truck Buyer A: "Well I really thought Chevy showed me something tonight by having its truck navigate a thin rail between a series of swinging steel I-beams"

Undecided B: "Well after tonight I've got to say I'm leaning toward Toyota, what with the way it managed to stop that entire jet airliner using only its standard disc brakes.

Katie Couric: "Fascinating pros and cons on both sides and a major change in strategy from Chevy, who seems to have completely abandoned the "scaling 60-degree-angled mountains" approach of last time."

Don't, you know, do any research on the features or prices.

This is a deep problem, and one that affects me and many of my closest, most intelligent friends. The idea that "character" matters so much is the implicit message of so much news coverage we can't help but be swayed a little bit. The polls bear this out- during the last presidential election in 2004 10% of the population voted on "agendas/ideas/platforms/goals"; 6% for Bush voters, 13% for Kerry voters according to a Gallup poll. That's a disaster for democracy.

Further, I have to imagine that the deep cynicism that most of us feel regarding politics, and perhaps the same cynicism that makes people politically inert, must be partially a result of this image-focused voting. The young idealist who loves Bill Clinton's sparkling eyes and inspiring rhetoric in 1992 is the same confused partisan trying to excuse the bombing of Sudan in 1998 is the same hardened non-voter in 2000. The small-government conservative who couldn't get enough of Bush's Reagan-esque speeches about government being the problem is the same meek apologist for wire-tapping and massive new government spending in 2004 is the same guy who "forgets" to mail-in his absentee ballot this year. If you've got a red white and blue t-shirt with a candidates name on it right now, you might just see yourself in one of those examples in a few years. Voting is important though so, this year, try something different: Vote for someone without illusions about what they'll do.