Hooey Defeats Human: The Undecided Voter

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Opening ballot boxes (Photo from the National Archives)
Opening ballot boxes (National Archives)
Opening ballot boxes (National Archives)

With most midterm primaries now decided, it’s time to gear up for the biennial courtship of those great determiners of elections: those who can’t make up their minds.

Every election cycle, candidates fight for their attention, while pollsters and media cite them as the key to our nation’s future.

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Hooey. They’d probably vote for “Nobody” if it were on the ballot.

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The “undecideds” are constantly bemoaned by political experts who say they don’t properly pay attention to politics, but that isn’t the real problem. After all, no one should be forced to pay attention to politics if he doesn’t want to.

The problem, decidedly, is their focus. Whenever they are asked what issue will drive them to finally make up their minds, they inevitably say they are looking for “the candidate who will do the most for me.”

First off, this is incredibly selfish. Second, it invites pandering.

Naturally, the Democratic and Republican candidates both want the undecided vote. So if the undecided want neon underpants outlawed, the candidates trample each other for sound booth space to say, “I’m Candidate X, and I approve this anti-neon underpants message.”

After both candidates tell the undecided what they want to hear, the undecided complain to the pollsters and media: “I can’t tell the difference in the candidates.”

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Well, of course you can’t: They’re both catering to your precious wishes. It’s like divorced parents each trying to buy the bigger teddy bear.

Furthermore, no one ever calls them on their selfishness.

I have searched in vain to find out when the phenomenon of the “undecided voter” began. I found a group of historians who say they don’t have a clue when it started. They do say, however, that in colonial times people voted publicly. There was no secret ballot, and therefore no “undecided voter.”

But can we be sure? A voter might have showed up at the courthouse to proclaim he was casting his vote for Phineas Broughsbury, even though three days earlier he was wavering over Dalton Sinclair. Technically, three days earlier he was “undecided.”

And for all we know, somebody might have stood up and said, “I can’t stand the lot of them. I just came for the whiskey!” Yes, everyone got snockered at these events.

Howdy Doody, Bye-Bye Duty

Be all this as it may, I want to tackle the undecided’s initial pronouncement that they are looking for the candidate who will “do the most for me.” I think that gives us a clue as to when this phenomenon began.

The “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II, is often touted as the last generation – as a whole – to unselfishly sacrifice for the greater good. All their kids, on the other hand, supposedly were indulged with every wish once the happy days were here again.

Maybe there’s an Ayn Rand influence, or maybe it’s a result of the Me Decade, but it’s now not only considered acceptable to vote merely for one’s own self-interest, it’s practically considered wrong not to.

I have on more than one occasion over the past two decades been scolded for voting against my own self-interest. I don’t remember the particulars, but generally, I was voting against the candidate who proposed a program that would have helped me personally.

While I would have greatly appreciated the help, I felt it would have come at the expense of others who weren’t getting a say in helping me. I don’t mind voting for programs that help people in need, but I didn’t feel these programs should be helping people, like me, who didn’t’ need it.

Wherefore art thou?

If there is any good news, it’s that it turns out undecided voters may not actually have as much influence as they have been given credit for.

UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck wrote on The New York Times’ website in April that statistics show very few people depart from their normal political party – even after spending an amount of time feeling undecided.

But this won’t stop campaigns from going after them.

Nick Gourevitch, research director at Global Strategy Group, responded to Vavreck on The Huffington Post  saying that it still makes more sense to try to turn an undecided voter than get a committed one to the polls. After all, winning an undecided voter gains a campaign two votes – the opponent loses one, the candidate wins one – while persuading a decided supporter to get off the couch and vote only brings in one for the candidate while not taking one away from the opponent.

In other words, they’re going to keep throwing their money at selfish people who are unlikely to change their minds anyway instead of spending it on motivating people who actually have principles.

The Daily Beast’s Michelle Cottle has called the undecideds a “menace” because they are actually people who don’t pay attention in the world yet insist on voting anyway.

Blogger Mark Draughn, a self-proclaimed undecided, said in a 2008 post that the politically non-astute such as himself shouldn’t vote. He’s right.

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But most of his uninformed brethren don’t agree.

Nevada has long had a “None of These Candidates” option on its ballot. Earlier this year that’s exactly what got the most votes in its gubernatorial primary. We’re clearly reaching critical mass when people still are undecided even while filling out their ballots.

Maybe that will bring out attack ads on “None of the Above.” After all, “None of the Above” refuses to take a stand on the issues, though I suppose it isn’t controlled by those big-money special interests.

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Enough with putting the purposely ill-informed voter up on a pedestal.

What we need are principles. Maybe yours are different than mine, but I respect you for voting for the person I’m voting against as long as you are doing so because you have a reasoned worldview that guides your conscience.

Those who waver back and forth based on what goodies they perceive they’ll get should stay home and do whatever most gratifies themselves — instead of doing that to the rest of us.

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