The Witless Undecided Voter

“If you’re undecided at this point, you’re an idiot,” Chatterbox’s friend Charlotte Hays, editor of the Women’s Quarterly, confided the other day. She makes a persuasive point that’s fleshed out a bit in an Oct. 17 Wall Street Journal Page One story by John Harwood and Jackie Calmes:

They have paid less attention to the campaign than their decided counterparts, either for lack of time or motivation. … “These soft voters do not have a coherent set of beliefs,” says one senior Bush campaign strategist. … According to [a new] Journal/NBC poll, voters who have made up their minds are twice as likely to say they are paying close attention to the campaign as are voters whose support is up for grabs. Only 26%, or roughly one in four of those who haven’t settled on a candidate say they have “a great deal” of interest in the election. By contrast, half of the decided voters profess a high level of interest.

Certainly these folks don’t come across as terribly swift in the televised focus groups and interviews that have bombarded the airwaves in these closing weeks of the election. “What frustrates me is that you all keep talking about personality, even though, about two hours ago, you wanted to hear about issues,” chided pollster Frank Luntz on Oct. 11 to an MSNBC focus group of undecideds from Tampa and Cincinnati that was emitting amazingly low wattage. (Click here to see why Luntz was ready to strangle this bunch.) According to a tracking poll by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Policy, a majority of voters didn’t start thinking about the presidential race on a daily basis until Oct. 8. Even though they are thinking about it now, these voters say the race is “boring.” Well, of course it’s boring! That’s because Gore and Bush have flattened out their public images so as not to offend the dim sensibilities of uncommitted voters! Interestingly, roughly the same majority of voters who say the race is “boring” also say the campaign is “informative.” If you weren’t paying attention before Oct. 8 and you are now, it couldn’t help but be informative. A tragic conclusion one might jump to is that as undecided voters start paying attention to the campaign, they find the information they’re exposed to so boring that they can’t take it in at all. Some support for this interpretation comes in the finding that it’s still news to the majority of voters that George W. Bush favors “a large cut in personal income taxes.”

Not every last undecided voter is an uninformed dolt. As Karl Rove points out in the Journal story, some are well-informed but choose to decide at the last minute. Political analyst Charlie Cook calls these the “agonizers.” Chatterbox knows a few of these people, and he can vouch for their brainpower, though not necessarily their ability to function in the everyday world. Another likely category is the intelligent voter who is capable of tuning out the media bombardment of information about the candidates but still has time to cram and make an informed decision during the last weeks before the election. However, Chatterbox doubts the agonizers and the crammers represent a very large slice of the electorate. Thus the crucial-but-unasked question: Which candidate is more likely to appeal to the dumb vote?

The easy answer is George W. Bush. His public persona is that of an affable, none-too-bright fellow, and it’s easy to imagine a dumb voter looking at him and identifying with him. By contrast, Al Gore must come across as forbiddingly brainy. But it’s possible that dumb voters break down into two categories: self-satisfied dumb voters and self-hating dumb voters. If that were true, the self-satisfied dumb voters would be likelier to vote for someone they identify with (George W.) while the self-hating dumb voters would be likelier to vote for someone they didn’t identify with (Al Gore). Are self-satisfied dumb people more plentiful than self-hating dumb people? Chatterbox suspects that they are and that this is good news for Bush. But, since Chatterbox intends to vote for Gore, he hopes this analysis turns out to be dumb.

Photograph of Al Gore and debate audience members on the Slate Table of Contents by Tannen Maury/Agence France Presse.