Last week, Christopher Hayes wrote an engaging an important article about undecided voters for The New Republic, Decision Makers
. In the article, Hayes uses his anecdotal experience as a canvasser in an attempt to debunk some widely held beliefs about undecideds.
In many circles, the first myth Hayes sets out to debunk, that undecided voters are not always rational, caused much stir. However, it did not do much for me. People are not always rational, and sometimes their irrationality impacts their political decisions? Well, duh. No one is rational about everything all the time, not even Spock. Then again, people who are irrational about everything all the time are unable to function. As humans, we operate along a broad continuum or rationality and irrationality. The debate over whether or not humans are rational beings does not make much sense to me, because I think the answer is so obvious: sometimes we are, sometimes we are not. It may be infuriating at moments, especially when it spills over into the realm of politics, but that is also just the way it is and the way it will always be.
What really struck me about the piece was the way Hayes discussed issues in the final myth he sought to debunk. Or, rather, the way he found it difficult to talk about issues with undecided voters:Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues.
Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. 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.
The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.
But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps--though I'll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics--maybe, I thought, "issue" is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they're being quizzed on a topic they haven't studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"
These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." 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. (...)
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?
Interesting stuff. I am intuitively inclined to agree with this analysis: I think Democrats are sorely lacking in good, positive, and vague
articulations of their platform. Most Bush voters
seem to latch on to horribly vague concepts such as "values" and "the war on terror." Throughout the campaign and according to exit polls, Kerry held comfortable leads among people who listed specific issues, such as the war in Iraq or health care, as their primary concern. Bush voters tended to be in the vague camp.
This discussion, which granted is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, also complicates any notion of moving to the right or the left in order to win elections (an issue which I have blogged about in the recent past). What is the point of moving anywhere along an abstract ideological spectrum when most voters, possibly the vast majority, just do not think of politics according to that abstract spectrum? Rather than moving anywhere, shouldn't we think about what concepts can we employ in order to develop a positive, populist and vague vocabulary that can serve as a broad ideological framework from which our specific policy proposals will resonate with more people? Lately, I am into using the concept of "personal initiative," but what have you been thinking about? Let me know.