Studying the Undecideds

Election '04

I've decided: I've had enough of the undecideds.

Thanks to a tidal wave of polls, focus groups, Powerpoint presentations, slideshows, studies, and laboratory dissections, we now know more about undecided voters than we do about almost anyone else involved in the 2004 campaign – including the candidates.

For instance, it turns out these irresolute souls are more likely to be white than black, female than male, married than single, and live in the suburbs rather than in large cities. They are less likely to think that politics is relevant to their lives. They are likely to be younger and less educated than the general electorate – but older and more affluent than those who have committed to a candidate. Most will not make their decision until the week before the election.

And, perhaps most important of all, undecided voters love cartoons, talk shows, "CSI: Miami," and reality shows like "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor" (no word yet on whether they prefer Coke or Pepsi, boxers or briefs, Alien or Predator – but I'm sure that info is being tabulated by some highly paid polling company as we speak).

The problem is, this fixation with all things undecided is threatening to turn a campaign that should be about big ideas, big decisions, and the huge differences between the world views of John Kerry and George Bush into a narrow trench war fought over ludicrous charges.

As a group, undecided voters long to be soothed and reassured. So, since the convention, in a misguided effort to play to this fickle crowd, Kerry's message has been designed not to offend rather than to inspire.

"Before you go to battle," he said in his powerful and unambiguous convention statement on the war, "you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent." That is the right message on Iraq, and if undecided voters find it too bold and unmodulated, tough luck.

This step-on-no-toes approach is also what created the vacuum into which the Swift Boat Controversy has come roaring, full speed ahead.

This repugnant non-story is an irony-drenched exhibit A in the case against focusing on undecided voters. Consider: After being ardently wooed, courted, pursued, and catered to by Team Kerry, a sizeable chunk of this capricious lot has taken the noxious bait being dangled by the anti-Kerry slime machine and swallowed it hook, line, and stinker.

According to a new poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey, 46 percent of undecided and persuadable voters say they find the vile Swift Boat Veterans for Truth TV ads "very or somewhat believable."

Believable?! But then why are we surprised that the folks who are still on the fence nearly four years into one of the most disastrous and polarizing presidencies in American history find foaming-at-the-mouth accusations that John Kerry might have shot himself because it would look good on his resume "believable"?

The 2004 election is a political event with unprecedented significance for our lives and the lives of our children. The Democrats cannot allow it to devolve into a debate over whether their candidate bled enough to warrant a Purple Heart.

And since no one can doubt that more scurrilous attacks are coming Kerry's way, it is imperative that in the future the right answers to all wrong questions are offered immediately and without, for one moment, relinquishing the Kerry campaign's attack on the president's failures at home and abroad or clouding its alternative moral vision of what America can be with George Bush safely back in Crawford.

This is all the more important since sadly the media will continue to make no distinctions in the volume and content of their coverage between true claims and false ones. According to the Annenberg study, nearly 6 in 10 people saw or heard the smears – predominantly on TV news that gave greater play to the politically motivated lies of a few than to the official Navy records.

By reframing the discussion on his terms and not Karl Rove's, Kerry will not only inoculate himself from the next round of scurrilous attacks that are surely coming his way, he will also go a long way toward expanding the electorate by convincing unlikely voters – the 100 million eligible voters who didn't vote in 2000 – that this election, and their participation in it, would make a huge difference in their lives and the life of our country.

And, as an added bonus, he could free himself from the soul-sapping tyranny of trying to please and placate America's vacillating – and terminally unreliable – undecided voters.

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