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Undecided voters and who they really are

By Jesse Rifkin
On November 4, 2012

For two years now, starting well before Mitt Romney even officially announced his presidential campaign, polls asked who voters would choose in an Obama-Romney matchup.
In May 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces code named "Seal Team Six" under President Obama's command. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In April 2012, Romney's final Republican contender Rick Santorum dropped out, giving Romney the party nomination. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In May 2012, Obama for the first time announced his support of same-sex marriage. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In June 2012, the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, the biggest law the President had passed while in office. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In August 2012, Romney selected Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In August 2012, Republicans held their national convention, broadcast nationally for three straight nights. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
In September 2012, Democrats had their turn, holding their nationally-broadcast convention. Analysts called it a game changer. Polls essentially stayed the same.
Why have poll numbers remain basically static for the last two years? Simple: because the undecided voters who truly decide the election have not paid attention until recently. If you read the news every day and have at least a decent understanding of the economy and other issues, odds are that you have already made up your mind. In fact, odds are that your mind was already made up two years ago.
Undecided voters make up approximately six percent of the electorate. So who are these undecided voters, in whose hands rests the fate of the entire country - and, indeed, the world? Surveys show they tend to have less education and less understanding of the issues than the general population. As Reuters noted in an October article, "On questions about the budget deficit, same-sex marriage, healthcare, and immigration, this same subset was twice as likely as all likely voters to answer 'unsure' when asked about their personal views." This group is who all of our politicians' speeches, television commercials, and newspaper advertisements are geared towards. The people who know the least are also the ones who determine election outcomes the most.
Comedian Bill Maher noted this phenomenon on his show Real Time. "A tiny fraction of uncommitted voters in a few swing states will decide this election.  But could we please stop treating them like they're somehow more noble and discerning than the rest of us? ... Put on a pedestal by the media as if they were Hamlet in a think tank, searching out every last bit of information, high-minded arbiters pouring over policy positions and matching them against their own philosophies.  Please!  They mostly fall into a category political scientists call low-information voters."
Maher continued, "And the worst part of all this is that America's entire electoral process - the debates, the conventions, the ads, the photo-ops with the corn dogs - it's all targeted at this tiny segment of the population that's just not that interested.  Which would make them, by definition, the least qualified for this decider's role. When are low-information wishy-washy people ever desirable to talk to?  There's a reason why when you have a problem, you never seek their advice.  Hey, you know who you should talk to about that thing you're going through?  Someone who doesn't know anything about it!"
Of course, the alternative could be just as bad. In his text "The Republic," the ancient writer Plato described the ideal society as being ruled by "philosopher kings," allowing only the wisest citizens to make decisions affecting the entire state. If such a system were implemented, democracy would be abandoned and the majority of the population would possess no voice in their governance. Although in that system, unlike America over the last two years, things might actually get done.
Realistically, the American election process will probably not experience any major changes any time soon. So all of us will just have to sit back and accept the fact that the people who decide the next president - and the most powerful person on planet Earth - are the same people who provide Jerry Springer with guests. But, as former Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska once pointed out, "There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

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