Decision Makers

Here’s one more ingredient for my conceptual stew. In this post-2004 election piece for The New Republic, Christopher Hayes describes what it was like volunteering to knock on doors on behalf of John Kerry’s campaign in Wisconsin that year. You should really read the whole thing – Hayes is a great writer – but I’ll just cite some especially interesting passages:

For those who follow politics, there are few things more mysterious, more inscrutable, more maddening than the mind of the undecided voter. In this year’s [2004] election, when the choice was so stark and the differences between the candidates were so obvious, how could any halfway intelligent human remain undecided for long? “These people,” Jonah Goldberg once wrote of undecided voters, on a rare occasion when he probably spoke for the entire political class, “can’t make up their minds, in all likelihood, because either they don’t care or they don’t know anything.”

[...]

Undecided voters aren’t as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We’re giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man’s house, she still couldn’t make sense of his decision. Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research. The office became quiet as we all stopped what we were doing to listen to one of our fellow organizers try, nobly, to disabuse her of this notion. Despite having the facts on her side, the organizer didn’t have much luck.

Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don’t enjoy politics. Political junkies tend to assume that undecided voters are undecided because they don’t care enough to make up their minds. But while I found that most undecided voters are, as one Kerry aide put it to The New York Times, “relatively low-information, relatively disengaged,” the lack of engagement wasn’t a sign that they didn’t care. After all, if they truly didn’t care, they wouldn’t have been planning to vote. The undecided voters I talked to did care about politics, or at least judged it to be important; they just didn’t enjoy politics.

The mere fact that you’re reading this article right now suggests that you not only think politics is important, but you actually like it. You read the paper and listen to political radio and talk about politics at parties. In other words, you view politics the way a lot of people view cooking or sports or opera: as a hobby. Most undecided voters, by contrast, seem to view politics the way I view laundry. While I understand that to be a functioning member of society I have to do my laundry, and I always eventually get it done, I’ll never do it before every last piece of clean clothing is dirty, as I find the entire business to be a chore. A significant number of undecided voters, I think, view politics in exactly this way: as a chore, a duty, something that must be done but is altogether unpleasant, and therefore something best put off for as long as possible.

[...]

Undecided voters don’t think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the “issues.” That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured–a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example–but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps–though I’ll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics–maybe, I thought, “issue” is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they’re being quizzed on a topic they haven’t studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: “Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what’s been happening in the country in the last four years?”

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn’t the word “issue”; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

In this context, Bush’s victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed “values” as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn’t the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like “character” and “morals.” Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values–we all know what’s right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don’t even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues–a familiarity that may not exist.