Monday, September 29, 2008

Deconstructing the Undecided

Undecided voters move in mysterious ways.

They are not a monolithic group, cannot be placed into a neat, predictable category, and have been key in pushing one or another candidate over the 50% mark in most recent presidential elections.

They can, however, be divided broadly into three groups, which may help us better understand what goes on in their oscillating minds.

Group 1 is made up of the people who are not particularly interested in politics or current events. They're not cable news watchers, newspaper-readers, don't understand much about the intricacies of the economy, and most likely belong to the 70% of Americans who don't have passports. This is the group that most of my friends belong to, who constantly switched the channel to shows like American Idol or Survivor during the primary election season - and considering how disheartening and petty politics can get sometimes, I was often tempted to join them.

However, this year, the election has been more entertaining and substantive than most reality shows.

Think about it: you start off with ten candidates on one side and eight on the other. These include, among others, a black man, a woman, a Latino, a senior citizen who was a former POW, a Mormon, a pro-choice 9/11 Republican mayor, a TV actor, and a pastor. Throw in race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and age, mix it all up, and then bring in the public to vote.

Every few weeks, someone gets voted off, with the factors determining the outcome ranging from lipstick and pigs to a potentially global economic meltdown. It's unpredictable, edgy, 24-7, and even the commercials (read: attack ads) play into the outcome.

However, as we near the season finale, those in Group 1 - who I would guess make up the largest population among the undecided demographic - are finding that the election has moved beyond its undeniable entertainment value and caught up with their personal lives, which are now being pummeled directly by financial losses, increasing mortgages, astronomical gas prices, and potential layoffs. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, having claimed thousands of American lives, while the weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden - the initially touted respective targets of these wars - remain as elusive as ever.

Group 2, on the other hand, comprises the genuine independents. This group is much smaller, and consists of voters who are well-informed and well-read on the issues. They are reasonable, thinking individuals who, like anyone blessed with the faculty of genuinely independent thought, cannot align themselves completely with either party. They may be fiscally conservative and socially liberal at the same time, or vice versa. They are not easily swayed by campaign-constructed talking points or media-sponsored sideshows. They may be looking at third party candidates, or if forced to choose between the two major parties, at who they feel represents the lesser of the two "evils".

Group 3 should really be called the "pseudo-undecided". These are the "non-pro-this-but-definitely-anti-that" voters: they're the ones that will say, for instance, "Yes, I am voting this year, I don't know who I'm voting for, but it's definitely not Obama." Many of them identify themselves as independents in polls and place themselves in the undecided column when they probably shouldn't - they constitute a whole different component of the margin of error.

For all three groups, though, it has now become virtually impossible not to pay attention, because more than ever in recent history, the result of this election will ultimately play a significant role in the livelihood of almost all voters and their families.

Can we predict which way they'll swing?

Well, we'll need to break it down first. Group 3 is not a truly undecided group, so they can be ignored.

However, Groups 1 and 2 share a common denominator:

If things are going badly, they're likely to vote against the status quo.

And if things are going well, they can go either way or not vote at all.

This year, things are clearly not going well, and it's down to the final two contestants. The running mates have been chosen, coloring the mix, with everything from the Tina Fey factor to a probable $700 billion dollar economic bailout playing significant roles.

Watching Obama and McCain go at it for the first time last week, I was surprised when the pundits and political analysts said that there was "nothing new" brought up in the debate. For most of the undecideds who had just tuned into the election - specially those in Group 1 - everything was new.

The political junkie analyst who has been following the campaign for almost two years now may find it hard to believe that there are many recently tuned in voters who have never heard of General Petraeus - but I watched the debate with a few of them, and they are all registered to vote.

It shouldn't have been surprising that Obama gained more ground afterwards. For all of the knowledge and expertise that McCain demonstrated on foreign policy, Obama still managed to sound more confident, more optimistic, and connect better with swing voters by tying everything to the economy - from how the $10 billion a month spent in Iraq could be spent on health care, education, and infrastructure at home, to how the $700 billion a year spent on foreign oil could be invested in clean and renewable energy resource development, creating more jobs and providing wallet relief for drivers right here in the United States.

This election has now become personal enough and serious enough to transcend race, gender, age, lipstick on pigs, and the Couric-Palin sideshow. Judging from the significant leads that Obama has picked up in key swing state polls this week, it's more than safe to say that the undecideds are now tuned in - and listening.

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