The Undecided Voter Revealed
We asked America’s undecided voters to explain themselves. They gave us an earful.
By Digital Vision.
Mitt Romney may have hacked my email. A week ago, I asked undecided voters to write me at email@example.com to explain themselves and their situation. I got about 200 thoughtful responses. (I welcome more, though supplies are going fast.) The message to Romney was clear: run as a malleable moderate from Massachusetts who isn’t passionate about implementing a conservative social agenda, will promote a foreign policy that is not too different from President Obama's, and keep your distance from the Republican Congress. As the campaign comes to an end, Romney has fully embraced those first two pieces of advice, and by never really campaigning with GOP congressional leaders and recasting Paul Ryan, is doing a version of the third.
For these undecided voters, this election is a referendum on Romney. They’ve mostly already made up their mind about the incumbent. They don't dislike President Obama, but they think he is either incapable of improving the economy or locked into a do-nothing phase with Congress. "I voted for Obama in 2008, much to the surprise of my family and some of my friends, but certainly not all. I was enthusiastic about his election, but 4 years later feel he has not lived up to the ‘hope and change’ he professed, and [he] has not been successful in working with Republicans to get things done," writes Linda from Ohio. "I don't hold him responsible for the current state of the economy. I know it’s not in his control, but I am concerned with his plans, or lack thereof, for growth going forward. He seems stuck.” (This message almost sounds like a planted Romney email it so closely mirrors his campaign’s spin, but as you'll see at the bottom of this story, Linda has some pretty harsh things to say about Romney, too.)
These voters think Romney can handle the economy, but they worry he will embrace an extreme agenda on social issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage. It's on those issues that they favor President Obama. The conundrum of one woman was typical: "I believe Obama, if elected, would be disastrous for the country, not only because of the debt he would cause the country to incur, but because of the precedents he would continue to set that make his initiatives very difficult to roll back in a future election. I believe Romney would be equally disastrous for different reasons. Republican positions are almost uniformly anti-woman, and as president, Romney would be in a position to name Supreme Court justices whose rulings will determine highly significant and personal issues not just for me but for my daughter. So, do I sell out my daughter’s legal rights for her economic future?"
If they're not worried about Romney, they're worried about his party. “Although the economy is certainly my No. 1 issue (I'm also unemployed),” writes Christine from California, “it isn't the only issue. If it were, I think I would vote for Romney. But when it comes to social issues, I find the Republican Party downright scary, and I am also opposed to their stance on immigration, which is also an important issue for me. On the other hand, while I am not convinced Obama even understands the economy, never mind will actually move things in the right direction, I do think he has a bit more empathy in general.”
Romney's focus groups and polling have long told him a version of this. That's why Romney has fully implemented this strategy of recasting or—in some cases like abortion—rewriting his positions on a host of issues. The Boston Globe helpfully put together a list. At this point, liberals scream that the reshaping of Romney should disqualify him. He either can't be trusted—Obama's point on the stump—or he's just going to govern as a die-hard conservative once he gets in office. That points to a fundamental question for voters still considering whom to support. Will Romney aim to please his party’s conservatives once he's in office, the way he did during the primaries? Or, will he move to the middle, recognizing that's where the country is and where he'll need to be to get anything done in Washington?
Romney's past flip-flopping doesn’t bother many of these people. For a sizable group, it gives them hope that a vote for his economic policies won't lead to an extreme conservative agenda. "I'm working under the assumption that the Senate stays blue, and that Mitt Romney has shown a willingness to pursue pragmatic rather than idealistic ends," writes Peter Bryan, an Obama 2008 Pennsylvania voter who is leaning toward Romney. He notes approvingly that Romney will be pragmatic because he "is the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, as we've learned so far." Some would like to see a little more shape-shifting from the candidate. "I would definitely vote for Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate," says Mary from Northern Virginia. "I am frightened by the risks of [the] Mitt who picked Paul Ryan ."
But they wouldn't be independents if they all saw things the same way. "Romney's willingness to transfigure himself into whatever people want to hear is very off-putting and gives me doubts about his character," writes Joe from Wisconsin. "I understand the need to be less than forthright—you tell people that you are going to touch their entitlements and they whip themselves into a frenzy. But a president with character should at least try to convince the mob rather than running with it. What if the mob is leading us off of an unknown cliff?"
For Grant, a lifelong Republican from West Virginia, he's thinking about voting for Romney because it might change the party from within. "I know the real Romney from his Olympics days, governorship days, and Bain days (before it became politically incorrect to make money on Wall Street). I never thought the GOP minders would let him come out and talk about his family, religion, and practical—dare I say, moderate—approaches. The GOP Politburo has forced a VP candidate on him and also a narrow message. My vote is for the long view—assisting the GOP to cleanse itself of the "little tent" views .... I've been impressed that just before the debate, Romney took some initiative and broke away from the party line …. If he will keep showing he can do this, I'd consider voting for him."
A slight majority of those who responded are women. "I'm an undecided, under-25, female voter in one of Ohio's biggest swing counties," writes Lauren. "If any other man vied so hard for my affections as these two candidates, I'd have filed a criminal harassment report by August." Their views are complex and they're irritated by the way the candidates are talking about them. Jenelle Kirchoff is a pro-choice Catholic, but she is considering voting for Romney because "I am struggling with Obama's insistence that all entities mandate birth control coverage." Kirchoff is also the mother of seven, and though after her divorce she accepted limited government assistance, she thinks Obama is in favor of subsidies that are too generous. "My indecision is based solely on the fact that the Romney/Ryan platform has every intention of limiting access to safe abortions and affordable birth control through clinics like Planned Parenthood. And the Obama/Biden ticket doesn't seem to understand that welfare programs can and should be cut. I'm a single mother of seven. If I can live without government assistance, why can't everyone else?"
Ginger from Oregon has just moved very reluctantly to the Romney camp: "I am still sick to my stomach with what I did, but I voted for Romney. The economy has to be dealt with and he is, in my humble opinion, best qualified. I told my husband that if they start to repeal women’s health care choices I WAS going to use family money to go to Washington, DC and protest." Chris from Ohio and his wife went with Obama, barely: "My wife and I simply can't swallow a Republican in the White House who would support their point of view and potentially put two Supreme Court justices in place that would imprint even more misogyny into the federal government. It is maddening that we really have no rational options here and are forced to vote for a crony capitalist with no second term agenda and a deadly foreign policy program ... but what else can we do?" Scot in Denver voted for Obama, too: "We can vote early in Colorado, and I voted for Obama last Saturday. It was a close thing—about an hour before I went to the poll I was convinced I was voting for Romney. When it came time to pull the lever—well, touch the screen—I decided to remain optimistic. We'll see how that turns out."
These emails point out an important thing about undecided voters. They may be unclear on their candidate, but they have very clear views on certain issues. The number of voters who were weighing the question of Romney’s stance on social issues suggests they have clear inclinations. That is why the Obama campaign has tried so hard to keep Indiana senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock’s comments about rape and abortion in the news. If voters are balancing between Romney’s views on the economy and social issue overreach, the Obama campaign wants to keep them focused on the social-issue part of the equation.
My sample is not scientific. Political scientists tell us my respondents are not your typical undecided voters. In fact, according to Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, the undecided voters are the exact opposite of those who responded to my request. They are not that involved in politics, they’re not reading up on the issues—or any issue since they tend not to follow the news—they’re not sure that their vote will matter, or they’re sick of the whole business. “When I look at the data, what I see is that the majority of [undecided voters] have a hard time making sense of the political world,” says Vavreck. “The normal cues—party, ideology—that early voters use are like a foreign language to them.”
Both campaigns are courting these voters, but Vavreck says about 30 percent of registered voters who are undecided will stay home. Of course the largest group of undecided Americans is those who are undecided about voting, not undecided about whether to pick one candidate or the other. So just as campaign rallies only give you a sliver of the overall race, these voices aren’t representative of the entire undecided voter pool.
But undecided voters have taken such a pounding—on Saturday Night Live and from people like Chris Matthews and Bill Maher—it seemed fitting to give them a chance to speak. I have reprinted more of their responses below. Many of these voters come from swing states, but a lot are frustrated that they don't live in swing states and believe their vote is wasted. Most are highly informed, which you'd expect from this kind of experiment. They are the opposite of "low information voters." They read too much and become more indecisive the more they read. When the campaigns and candidates pander to them without giving them what they want, they are left even more unsure.
What do they want? A serious answer to their specific questions. They also want a political process that recognizes that the world is complex. "I face a serious crisis of values. Additionally, I am a conservative Christian, but I am wondering who really is pro-life: the candidate who believes abortion should be legal or the candidate who wants to maintain a system where people are denied life-saving health care services because they can't afford to pay?" An anonymous government worker in a swing state writes: "The notion that undecided voters are ‘low information’ voters rests on the belief that the party platforms are coherent and, accordingly, any rational person paying enough attention would naturally fall into one camp or another. But there is no natural affinity between a neo-con foreign policy, reactionary views on social policy, and laissez faire economic policies. Likewise, there is nothing particularly coherent to my mind in a platform of multilateralism abroad, liberalism with regard to social issues, and redistributionist tax policies." Bryan Sell describes himself this way: “I'm a 38-year-old undecided voter registered in Michigan who believes that humanity's greatest problems are largely rooted in binary thinking.”
Some voters want more than two choices and are voting for Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Though most admit they're throwing their vote away by voting for a third-party candidate, their commitment to their principles comes first. "I know as well as anyone that Johnson doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell. I am not delusional. That said, my vote is one of the purest ways for me to exercise my voice and my protest, and I am incredibly disappointed with Obama," writes Morgan Klein.
This exercise was refreshing and faith restoring. That isn't a knock against partisans. They care about the country enough to donate their time and energy to the cause. That makes them a necessary treasure to democracy. I spend a lot of time with partisans at rallies listening to their worries and hopes. But in the digital world, partisans are often full of certainties, snap judgments, and insults. The passion overwhelms illumination. These correspondents are undecided—or "still deciding," as one put it in an effort to lessen the stigma—because they weigh the duty so heavily. More important, they all have a quality that has all but disappeared in this election: They pause long enough to hear the other side’s arguments. Not once in these emails did a voter write about one of the candidates’ supposed gaffes. They are the perfect combination: skeptical and thoughtful. They don't trust politicians, the press, or pundits, but they treat the ideas of all of those players seriously enough to formulate an opinion of their own. If only the politicians trying to get their vote behaved the same way.
Undecided Voters in Their Own Words
Matt from North Carolina:
I am a 24-year-old undecided voter. Rather, I am a constantly-deciding voter: I woke up yesterday thinking I would vote for the president, and today I'm leaning towards Gov. Romney. I realize the problem is that I can't have my cake and eat it too. I agree with Obama on a lot of domestic and foreign policy, but I'm unconvinced that his fiscal policies are working. With Romney, I feel the opposite. I think he could get the economy turned around, but I'm afraid of what may become of the social issues I care about. As an NSF-supported chemistry graduate student, the future of basic research funding is very important to me and whether it's true or not, the general mindset of my (vocal) peers is that Democrats are better for science. So I feel like I'm trying to choose between things I want as an individual (Obama's social policies and being "good for science") and things that I think could be good for the country as a whole (Romney's economic policies). If I vote for Romney, am I turning my back on my own scientific future, my gay friends, the poor, the environment, etc.? If I vote for Obama, am I being shortsighted and selfish? I'm definitely going to vote, I'm just not sure yet who it will be for.
Amy in New Hampshire:
I'm finishing my dissertation right now, so I really shouldn't be writing to you, but knowing I am so in the minority is interesting and maybe worth sharing some data on.
Rather than being "undecided," I would describe myself as "deciding." Active, not passive. Gerund, not past tense. In other words, don't talk down to me, all you decided voters! Plus, I live in a swing state (New Hampshire), so I guess I'm a "deciding" voter in that sense, too.
Adore privilege of voting, total highlight every four years. Used to be more partisan. Have voted almost entirely Democratic since age 18. Really happy when Obama won. That was an easy choice—who would vote for the McCain ticket after certain, um, choices were made? This one is harder.
I'm thinking in terms of the long view and what's best for the U.S. on a variety of levels as it develops in a sea of factors no one has fully foreseen or can foresee. The multiplicity, complexity, and acknowledgement of the limited nature of human foresight are all key.
Neither guy is a complete package, but at their best: Obama is dutiful, earnest, idealistic, inteligent. Romney is efficient, sharp, conservative, center leaning. Both are good sets of qualities at specific historical moments. Which can leverage this moment in U.S. history best? I don't know, and I think the majority of voters who think they know actually don't (and can't). It's just hubris and excessive partisanship that makes us think we can know without waiting, watching, weighing, and fully considering. There is major damage to be done by voting in the wrong guy, and I want to be totally open to seeing which points will become most critical to national and global health in the next four years.
Linda in Ohio:
I hope I am not too late… I was, until Monday night, an undecided woman voter from Ohio. Of course, I am being courted by both parties and therefore feel that I could actually have an impact on the election. I must say I find some of the articles I've read questioning how anyone could still be undecided at this point just slightly offensive. Well, I'll tell you. I was undecided because I wanted to know more about the candidates and their plans for going forward before making a decision. I wanted to hear the debates. I consider myself a socially liberal fiscally conservative Republican, and maybe more of an independent. I voted for Obama in 2008, much to the surprise of my family and some of my friends, but certainly not all. I was enthusiastic about his election, but 4 years later feel he has not lived up to the "hope and change" he professed, and he has not been successful in working with Republicans to get things done. I don't hold him responsible for the current state of the economy. I know it’s not in his control, but I am concerned with his plans, or lack thereof, for growth going forward. He seems stuck. I also don't like his class warfare approach on taxes.
I was undecided because although my enthusiasm for Obama had dwindled, I was uncomfortable with Mitt Romney and the Republican extremists. I wasn't convinced that he had a better plan to move the country and the economy forward and I could not support the social positions of the Republican party. For example, I am in favor of gay marriage, some abortion rights (rape/incest), and programs to help the needy. I don't like Paul Ryan; he is too extreme on social, tax, and economic policy.
The game changer for me was the first debate when a more mild, centrist, concession builder, get-it-done Mitt Romney showed up. He made his case strongly and President Obama did not. I was undecided until the last debate, because I wanted to hear and see more from the two candidates. I have thought long and hard on this. The ads and stump speeches don't convince me of anything other than how they are trying to paint their opponent so they can win. So after the final debate, this undecided voter from Ohio who voted for Obama in 2008 will be voting for Romney this year. I am still a bit uncertain of which Romney we are going to get, but I think he has great executive experience and makes a better case for growth and reducing our deficit and working together for a better America than Obama does.
Lauren in Ohio:
I'm an undecided, under-25, female voter in one of Ohio's biggest swing counties—and if any other man vied so hard for my affections as these two candidates I'd have filed a criminal harassment report by August. Seriously. Ohio voters have long gotten a quadrennial ego boost, but this year's has reached another level. The weird lines upon which the current parties have polarized is the single biggest factor in my indecision: I'm a good moderate with a terrible job, a crumbling community, taxes I would [like to] pay less of, and zero interest in the zany conservative social agenda. I want to vote for the character Mitt has played over the past several weeks—the Massachusetts moderate who wants to cut spending while limiting cuts to social programs and defense.
Unfortunately, there's no sign that that guy will show up on inauguration day if elected, or that his real plan meets those promises. I balk at the idea of a Republican president assisting Congressional right-wingers in limiting gay and women's rights and blocking environmental regulations my state should, in my opinion, impose. At the same time, I disagree with what I see as federal over-reach imposed by this administration; the stagnant economy and the president's priorities in foreign policy don't feel much like "moving forward" either. Perhaps I need to make a better list of my own priorities, but not all undecideds are mouth-breathers who just haven't been paying attention. Just please, both of you: we like you, but we don't LIKE like you.
Melinda in Iowa:
I am a moderate Democrat and I voted for Obama in the last election. I am an undecided voter.
I take my vote very seriously and have been going back and forth on whom I am going to vote for. The debates did not help, but I have started to research both candidates’ stance on various issues and feel confident I will come to a decision soon.
The reason I am undecided: I feel obligated in a way to vote for Obama. I am a Democrat, I live in Iowa where gay marriage is legal, and I am fortunate to be able to say I am happily and legally married to a woman and we are raising 2 children together. There is a sense of peer pressure from the gay community to support Obama due to his support of us. I don't like that pressure and my main concern right now is the economy. I feel Obama inherited a mess and is getting a lot of blame and he has not been given enough time to try and fix things. On the other hand, I also see a lot of handouts to people that take advantage of the system. I am concerned Obamacare will just take my money so I can pay for others. Now, I do believe many people deserve assistance, but I wish that there would be more investigation into who actually is getting assistance and I feel that Obama has not done enough in regards to this and once again, the middle class has to keep on working and keep on struggling.
I have been at my job 21 years, never a day without a job since I turned 16. I work for a major bank in the foreclosure department and I have seen so many people get assistance due to the real estate crash, not [always] a bad thing by any means. Although I know banks have to be held accountable for some of the problems, I also feel there have been so many chances given to people who don't take advantage of them and still they get away with not paying their mortgage. Again, as I stated before, some people need these options and deserve them; some just take advantage.
I don't think I can put all of my reasons as to why I am an undecided voter in writing, but I hope this helps you understand there really are people who are still undecided, most of whom are probably going to be the most educated voters when this is all said and done.