John Kerry, Swing Voter

Will this election turn on self-esteem?

The outcome of this election may hinge on self-esteem. That struck me like a thunderbolt while reading Jacob M. Schlesinger’s Page One profile of swing voters in the Sept. 30 Wall Street Journal. Schlesinger quoted a swing voter named John Hay making the case against Bush: “He’s not intelligent, he’s stubborn, and I detest his environmental policy.” But Hay was annoyed by Kerry, too, because “he’s always doing an about face.” Then Hay admitted that when he looked at Kerry he was looking in the mirror, because “I flip-flop all the time.”

Eureka! Swing voters are not, as the experts keep telling us, trying to establish a connection with John Kerry. Temperamentally, at least, they are John Kerry!

This finding might at first seem cause for celebration at Kerry headquarters. But just because swing voters identify with Kerry doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him. That depends on whether they’re proud or ashamed of the traits they share with Kerry. It depends on whether they like or dislike themselves. It depends on swing voters’ self-esteem.

Hay doesn’t seem to like himself much, because he uses the derogatory terms “flip-flop” and “about face” to describe the characteristic he shares with Kerry. I imagine that when Hay looks at the Democratic nominee, he thinks, “Damn your indecisiveness. Be a man. Make up your mind and stick to it, for once.” But one can also imagine a swing voter—not Hay, but somebody else—regarding himself not as indecisive, but rather as judicious. Such a person would likely think, of Kerry, “You don’t go off half-cocked. You keep your powder dry, and make a decision only after all the facts are in. And if that decision turns out to be wrong, you’re man enough to admit it.” One swing voter who surely thinks this way is Kerry himself. He’s got self-esteem to spare. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be running for president.

Both ways of looking at Kerry contain truth. But which slant is more characteristic of that subgroup of voters whose decision-making process is tentative and slow—or, if you prefer, deliberative and unhurried? Do swing voters, en masse, display high self-esteem, or low self-esteem?

To answer this question, I made use of a highly sensitive social science instrument: the “self-esteem test” on the Web site for Psychology Today. Putting myself into what I imagined to be the mind-set of the typical swing voter, I answered various questions aimed at teasing out how much “I” liked myself. How often did I feel, in social situations, that I had something interesting to say? Being a swing voter, I shied away from “almost never” and “most of the time” and hit dead center: “c) Sometimes.” When I saw a good opportunity, did I recognize and seize it? Again, I answered, “c) Sometimes.” Pretty quickly I figured out that “(c) Sometimes” or “c) Somewhat agree” was the correct swing-voter answer to just about every question on the test. I made a few exceptions whenever c) designated an answer that seemed too pathetic to represent the dead center of public opinion. For example, on a question about whether I thought most other people had it better than me, I bypassed “c) Somewhat agree” for “b) Disagree.” (David Whitman’s 1998 book, The Optimism Gap, used polling to show that nearly everyone in the United States thinks he’s better off than most others—even when that’s demonstrably not the case.)

How did my c)-hugging swing-voter persona score? Fifty-seven out of 100. That sounded pretty bad. But an accompanying explanation said a score of 57 meant “you have a reasonably high level of self-esteem. There is, however, still some room for improvement.” On this scale, I imagine, scoring above 80 percent puts you in a Donald Trump zone where others flee from you on sight.

The bottom line is that there’s hope for Kerry yet. Swing voters may not love themselves, but they like themselves well enough. Which means they like Kerry well enough. To build on that sense of well-being, I recommend that the Democratic National Committee spike swing-state reservoirs. Prozac for all! Highly attractive men and women should be bused in to seduce loners who seem mildly depressed or distracted. Loudspeakers should play “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas around the clock. Copies of P.G. Wodehouse’s TheCode of the Woosters should be dropped from the sky. Also crates of Caswell & Massey bubble bath and Monte Cristo cigars. Dove bars—the ones with chocolate inside and out—should be handed out on street corners. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. should unspool continuously against the windowless sides of lighter-hued buildings. The scent of burning leaves (or, if it’s too early, freshly-cut grass) should fill the air. And the home pages of all computers should be reset, of course, to Slate. That should do it, I think.