Monday, November 22, 2004

An Anthropologist Among the Undecided Voters

From the New Replublic. Christopher Hayes's anecdotal observations from seven weeks talking to swing voters in Wisconson. These are highly recommended.

Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man's house, she still couldn't make sense of his decision. Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research. The office became quiet as we all stopped what we were doing to listen to one of our fellow organizers try, nobly, to disabuse her of this notion. Despite having the facts on her side, the organizer didn't have much luck.

Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics. Political junkies tend to assume that undecided voters are undecided because they don't care enough to make up their minds. But while I found that most undecided voters are, as one Kerry aide put it to The New York Times, "relatively low-information, relatively disengaged," the lack of engagement wasn't a sign that they didn't care. After all, if they truly didn't care, they wouldn't have been planning to vote. The undecided voters I talked to did care about politics, or at least judged it to be important; they just didn't enjoy politics.

The mere fact that you're reading this article right now suggests that you not only think politics is important, but you actually like it. You read the paper and listen to political radio and talk about politics at parties. In other words, you view politics the way a lot of people view cooking or sports or opera: as a hobby. Most undecided voters, by contrast, seem to view politics the way I view laundry. While I understand that to be a functioning member of society I have to do my laundry, and I always eventually get it done, I'll never do it before every last piece of clean clothing is dirty, as I find the entire business to be a chore. A significant number of undecided voters, I think, view politics in exactly this way: as a chore, a duty, something that must be done but is altogether unpleasant, and therefore something best put off for as long as possible.

A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists....When I mentioned the "mess in Iraq" he lit up. "We should have gone through Iraq like shit through tinfoil," he said, leaning hard on the railing of his porch. As I tried to make sense of the mental image this evoked, he continued: "I mean we should have dominated the place; that's the only thing these people understand. ... Teaching democracy to Arabs is like teaching the alphabet to rats."
While Bush's rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy played well with blue-state liberal hawks and red-state Christian conservatives who are inclined towards a missionary view of world affairs, it seemed to fall flat among the undecided voters I spoke with.

I particularly enjoyed his observations on the importance (none) of using issues to win undecided votes:

Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." ... 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....The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them....The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December. [Which, by the way, he has done, not by being elected, but through his personal relationship with God.]

To cite one example: I had a conversation with an undecided truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman's car after having worked a week straight. He didn't think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. "There's too many lawsuits these days," he told me. I was set to have to rebut a "tort reform" argument, but it never came. Even though there was a ready-made connection between what was happening in his life and a campaign issue, he never made the leap. I asked him about the company he worked for and whether it would cover his legal expenses; he said he didn't think so. I asked him if he was unionized and he said no. "The last job was unionized," he said. "They would have covered my expenses." I tried to steer him towards a political discussion about how Kerry would stand up for workers' rights and protect unions, but it never got anywhere. He didn't seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided.

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.

As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again.

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

[And spending far more time collecting data than I would have wanted to. Thank you, Christopher.]


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