The mysterious undecided voter

The New Republic imagines an undecided independent’s notes on last night’s vice presidential debate:

– Mitt Romney is a good man with a large heart. I know this because Paul Ryan told a story about a family that got hit by a car, and how Romney paid for them to go for college for free. My son Scott graduates high school next year; if he asks me to pay for college I will throw him in front of a car.

– Joe Biden said 47 percent of Americans are his mom and dad. Catholic families are even bigger than I thought!

– When the debate turned to Medicare and Medicaid, I was surprised to learn they are actually two separate programs. The way I explained to Scott was, “think of the AL and the NL in baseball, but with medicine.” One thing we can agree on: Everybody loves baseball, and people who like soccer can’t be trusted. (I don’t know what Social Security is.)

Several weeks ago, along similar lines, Michelle Cottle wondered, “Who the hell are these people?”

Ask the political scientists, pollsters, and other professional analyzers of the electorate who parse these sorts of things. They will tell you—as they have told me repeatedly over the years—that undecideds or swing voters or whatever you want to call them tend to be low-information folks who cast their ballots based on whichever candidate gives them the last-minute warm-and-fuzzies. (Did you see that guy’s smile in the last debate? Sign me up!) Way back during the 2000 Bush-Gore smackdown, I dug around in the data, interviewed undecideds, and called up a passel of experts. My findings were perhaps best (and certainly most entertainingly) summed up by Michael Haselswerdt, then the head of Canisius College’s political science department, who told me: “When it comes to politics, undecided voters don’t know anything. And they’re not going to pay attention long enough to learn anything.”

Twelve years on, the situation has not changed much. As The New York Times noted recently, “Swing voters often form their opinions about candidates based on emotional intangibles and a few events, like the debates.”

As for these oh-so-thoughtful folks’ carefully weighing their options, the Times observed, “Of likely swing voters, white non-college voters are ‘particularly low-information voters who don’t pay attention to the daily political back-and-forth, so their opinions are driven by their economic situation,’” said Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, a polling firm for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC.

Or as NBC’s First Read put it last week after postconvention analyses of undecideds in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia: “These are voters who simply aren’t paying attention.”

Ya think?

An exasperated Cottle summarizes:

Yet these are the sages to whom the political world caters, and on whom presidential campaigns spend literally billions of dollars. The media interview them until we’re blue in the face.  We put them on the television. We stick them in focus groups. Pollsters track their every cough and yawn. Never has such demonstrable ignorance been in such great demand. (Well, unless you count the cast of Jersey Shore.)

It almost makes you feel sorry for Romney and Obama, having to spend so much of their time chasing after people who don’t really give a damn one way or the other. If ever there was a slice of the electorate that didn’t deserve such pandering, it is these “thoughtful” few.

Bill Maher had similar thoughts.


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