the Undecideds, Full Campaign Ahead
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 worldviews
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.
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
The recent step-on-no-toes approach is what created the vacuum
into which the Swift Boat controversy has come roaring, full
This repugnant nonstory 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
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 six 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
By reframing the discussion on his terms and not Karl Rove’s,
Kerry will not only inoculate himself from the next round
of attacks, 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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