The Undecideds

Give them a break, already!

Maybe they’re “sheepish.” Maybe they’re “proud.” Maybe they’re “terminally uninterested in politics.” Maybe they’re “fed up.” Maybe they’re “sick of partisan rancor.” Maybe they’re “deliberative by nature, particularly in decisions of consequence.” Maybe they’re “attention-seekers.” Maybe they’re “confused, procrastinating, indifferent or just plain indecisive consumers of democracy.” Maybe they’re “chronically insecure.” Maybe they’re “unwilling — unable? — to rush it.” Maybe they’re “mired in an inescapable morass of ambiguity so dense they can’t choose whether to brush their teeth horizontally or vertically, much less gather the resolve needed to leave the house and go stand in line to vote.” Or maybe they’re just “too damned stupid to find their way to a polling place and pull a lever.”

Say whatever else you want to about them, they are The Undecideds—the “small cluster of holdouts,” per yesterday’s New York Times, who “are still wrestling with the ‘Who are you voting for?’ question.” The people who, you know, despite the fact that “Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have stood (or sat) for 36 debates, endured thousands of interviews, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertisements and the better part of two years trying to convince voters that they are worthy of the presidency, or at least a vote,” have yet to make up their minds between the two. (The Times, as do other outlets, tends to assume that undecideds are deciding between two candidates, rather than a slate of candidates that includes the Republican, the Democrat, and a bevy of third-party options—a problematic approach, as Nate Silver pointed out.) In all this, as a group, Undecideds have alternately vexed and fascinated political journalists. (“What’s up with them?Who are these mysterious creatures? And why, oh why, can’t they just make up their minds already?)

You’d think said political journalists would have a bit of compassion for the people struggling with their decision. You’d think said journalists would also consider that Undecideds simply might not have the time or inclination to engage in the political obsession we in the media have indulged in for the past two years—the fact that, as Time’s John Cloud put it, “some people have a real life, one not spent constantly refreshing the polling averages on”

We can (and should) ask what’s on these voters’ minds—and, for that matter, why those minds have yet to be made up. (Just as we should, by the same token, take care not to focus on Undecideds as vehicles for a dramatic/exciting narrative, as we did in the treatment of Hillary Clinton’s PUMAs during the Democratic convention.) But there’s a thin line between questioning Undecideds and making light of their indecision. And it’s a line the media—recently, in particular, as election day has drawn nearer—have sometimes crossed. Take conservative columnist Kathleen Parker’s column from last Thursday:

It is hard to imagine that “undecideds,” like restless phantoms with unfinished business, still haunt these final hours.

What can they be waiting for? An epiphany? Some final bit of information to tip the scale? A hidden corpse, an illegitimate child, a beloved aunt living in public housing?

And here’s David Sedaris, writing about Undecideds earlier this month in The New Yorker:

I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

Now, granted, Sedaris makes fun of everyone—himself included. (And, hey, at least he didn’t, as the Huffington Post’s Brad Listi did, begin an interview with “a real-live Undecided American Voter” by asking, “So what the fuck, man? Why are you still undecided?”) But it’s not just satirists—or even columnists—who are poking fun at the Undecideds. Take the Reuters article from last week that asked, without apparent irony, “What is wrong with these people? After more than a year of nonstop political campaigning by Democratic Illinois Sen. Obama and Republican Arizona Sen. McCain, what more do voters possibly need to know to make up their minds?” Or the AP story from last Friday that referred to Undecideds as “a stubborn wedge of people who, somehow, are still making up their minds about who should be president.”

Take also the media’s general insinuations that, even if Undecideds aren’t necessarily to be mocked for their un-made-up minds, they’re still somehow to be faulted for being, you know, that way. (Such insinuations generally come without even the courtesy of a Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” or some such to temper the blow.) Time and again, news outlets have presented sources “admitting” to being undecided, rather than simply declaring that fact. “Hetrick put me in touch with Tom Guyer, Jr., a parole officer in Lorain, on Lake Erie,” George Packer wrote in his recent (and, as Ryan Chittum noted, generally excellent) New Yorker report about Ohio voters. “A Democrat with ‘Republican views’ about some issues and a fondness for Bill O’Reilly, Guyer confessed to being undecided.”

Confessed to being undecided. As if Guyer has been caught shoplifting from democracy’s Wal-Mart by the vigilant security guards in the media. (Busted, red-handed! Or maybe blue-handed!) We get a similar treatment in a CNN iReport—in a video in which, as its headline declares, an “Undecided Voter Confesses.” Yes, to being undecided. (Scandalous!)

In an LA Times op-ed earlier this month, The American Prospect writer (and sometime CJR contributor) Ezra Klein argued of Undecideds that, “from a civic standpoint, few creatures are as contemptible.”

This election has dominated every form of American news media for the better part of two years. Newspapers, magazines, networks, cable, radio, blogs, people on street corners with signs – it’s really been rather hard to miss. Further, it pits two extremely different candidates against each other. Whether your metric is age, ideology, temperament, race, funding sources, healthcare plans or Iraq strategies, it would be hard to imagine two men presenting a starker contrast.

But despite this, the Undecided Voter wakes up each morning and says, in effect, “I dunno.”

If votes could be boiled down, as Klein suggests, to single metrics—issues, policies, or biographical/temperamental/physical realities—then, sure, this picture of Undecideds as The Great Failures of Democratic Decision-Making would be valid. But voting is, for most people, about much more than a single factor. It’s a jumble of weights and measures, a mix of assessments both rational and non-…ultimately, more of an algorithm than a simple string of algebra. For undecided voters, as for others, a vote is contingent on research. And discussion. And, perhaps, soul-searching. And for completing all of that, the only deadline that matters—indeed, the only deadline to which voters can fairly be held accountable—is tomorrow’s.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.