The undecided voter

ElectionsPoliticsMarketingReferendaColleges and UniversitiesConstance A MorellaU.S. House of Representatives

If you had to turn over a razor-thin election to a single undecided voter, Harold Bingham should be the one to pull the final lever.

Forget whether he's Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. He is thoughtful, deliberate and earnest. Bingham, 50, a general contractor from Bethesda, is undecided, but only because he isn't ready to decide yet.

Once he has gathered all the information, read the newspaper articles, watched the television reports, consulted his conscience, then Bingham will know - really know - and he'll be ready to cast his ballot for either Ehrlich or Townsend, Morella or Van Hollen.

"I like to have all my facts before I decide," Bingham says with evident - what else? - consideration. "I've done a lot of construction arbitrations. I try not to make judgments until I've heard everything. Perhaps that's why it doesn't concern me to make decisions until closer to the elections when I've gotten all the information."

Once again this year we are told some of Maryland's biggest political races will be decided by "The Undecided." We are used to hearing this sort of thing, enough so that the undecided voter has achieved nearly mythic dimensions in the American electoral process. In tight elections, everything seems to come down to them and what they are going to do. They are the ones still in play, and that makes them coveted, like uncommitted prom dates. Everyone else - those whose minds are made up - is a given and therefore uninteresting. They aren't in charge anymore. Our collective future now rests with the undecideds.

So, it is soothing to believe that in the aggregate, the undecided are composed of Harold Binghams. It is reassuring to think that the undecided are serious and responsible and that they approach the voting booth as they would the altar, burdened by the knowledge that something momentous rides on what they are about to do.

Forget it.

Forget Harold Bingham. Yes, he is engaged and considered and motivated. And, where the undecideds are concerned, he is the exception.

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, says it may be comforting to believe the undecideds are Solomon-like in wisdom. It is far from the reality, though.

"Undecided voters tend to be less interested in politics in general and are paying less attention," he says. "They are the least well-informed."

Least well-informed? That doesn't inspire much confidence, and yet, it is a commonly shared view of the undecided by those who have studied the electorate.

Lauren Cohen Bell is a political scientist at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia who often surveys voters. She says some undecided voters find themselves genuinely conflicted, like Harold Bingham. In the race for Congress in the 8th District, Bingham is torn between his desire for a Democratic U.S. House of Representatives and his longstanding admiration for the incumbent, Republican Connie Morella. He likes both candidates in the district, in contrast to the governor's race in which Bingham remains unimpressed by both Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Bob Ehrlich. Bingham fears he will be stuck choosing the one he dislikes least.

Some do find themselves involved in such internal battles. But, Bell says, many other undecideds are not conflicted at all. They are simply unengaged.

"Typically, they have a low level of interest in politics," she says. "They may be interested in voting, but they are not active in getting enough information until close to the end."

The decisions of this group of undecideds may be less than informed. They may, in fact, be completely uninformed.

"It's very possible that one event very close to the election could persuade them," says Bell, "or they happen to hear something 48 hours before the election, something about one of the candidates, and that will be enough. Or an ad. The information may or may not even be accurate, and it has an overriding impact on their vote."

If it sounds like a last-minute consumer choice, Emory's Abramowitz thinks it's an apt comparison.

"A lot of times when people go into the supermarket and don't have strong preferences, tiny differences - the packaging and location on the shelf - make up their minds. The same is probably true with undecided voters. Because they don't have strong party ties or strong opinions, they will make up their minds on last-minute impulse. It could be the last ad they saw, the last person they talked to, the last flier they were handed. It could be trivial, but isn't that what people do in the supermarket when they pick deodorant?"

David Preston, a Rhode Island marketer with a background in elections, says politics is growing ever more like consumer marketing, which is aimed at those who pay only limited attention. "The selling of a candidate is more and more like the selling of a product, largely driven by appeals to emotions rather than intellect."

Preston says the hardcore undecideds aren't worth pursuing. He believes most of them are too embarrassed to tell a pollster the truth, that they may not show up at the polls at all come Election Day. Abramowitz adds that trying to gather up the undecided vote is often a losing strategy.

"The difficult thing for candidates is that these [undecided] voters are generally paying less attention," says Abramowitz. "The voters you need to reach the most are the hardest ones to reach."

To the more sober-minded electorate, this image of the uninvolved, trivial-minded undecided voter may be troubling. If it's any consolation, though, Bell helpfully notes, undecided voters aren't the only ones capable of making barely considered electoral choices.

"There's no guarantee that the people who decide early are any better informed," she says. "It could be they've made a knee-jerk reaction to the party's decision. Maybe, in fact, they are applying even less thought."

Isn't that comforting?

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