Does America Get the Campaigns It Deserves?

I have some bad news. Chances are Mitt Romney doesn't care about you. OK, you knew that, but Barack Obama probably doesn't care about you either. Because if you read the Prospect, you're not an undecided voter, and even if you were an undecided voter, unless you live in one of a handful of states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and a few others), they couldn't care less what you think. Today The New York Times has a nice article about that tiny portion of the electorate that the presidential campaigns in all their glory are trying to persuade. Although the piece doesn't address this question, it's good from time to time to step back and acknowledge that the fate of our nation basically rests with some of the least informed among us, and the system is designed to maximize their power. But first:

In spite of clichés about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.

"There's a very small slice of people who are genuinely undecided, but it's enough to win the presidency," said Rich Beeson, the political director for Mr. Romney’s campaign.

The share of swing voters may even have declined in recent years, as many voters have become more reliably partisan. A report by the Pew Research Center found that self-identified Democrats are more liberal than in the past and self-identified Republicans are more conservative.

What that means is that all of this time, money, and effort—all the fundraising, all the television ads, all the polling, all the microtargeting, all the work put into shaping press coverage—is for the purpose of influencing this tiny sliver of the electorate that is so clueless they can't quite figure out whether they prefer Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. (Yes, there's a lot of effort put on turning out your base, too. But undecided voters are where the gold is.)

Am I biased on this issue? Sure. Politics happens to be the thing I'm most interested in, and lots of people have different interests. If someone prefers to spend their spare time pursuing their taxidermy hobby (and I'll admit, Taxidermy Today looks like good reading) instead of keeping up on the news, who are we to judge?

But as the old saying goes, even if you don't take an interest in politics, politics will definitely take an interest in you. It affects all of us in profound ways. And the basics aren't all that difficult to grasp. Republicans have more traditional views on social issues and Democrats have more progressive views. Republicans favor a more bellicose foreign policy than Democrats. Republicans generally advocate for the interests of the wealthy and corporations, while Democrats generally advocate for the interests of the middle and lower classes. These things don't always hold perfectly true, but the broad contours don't change. It's really not that complicated if all you want is to make the simple binary voting decision.

Undecided voters are not, by and large, people who are thoroughly informed but are having trouble weighing competing sets of beliefs. They're not saying, "Well, I'm pro-choice and in favor of gay rights, but I also think tax cuts are the best way to get the economy moving, so I'm really torn." There are some of those people around, but most of them have already figured out which side they come down on. If you're an undecided voter who could actually be swayed to change your vote by a TV ad about some stupid thing one of the candidates said, then let's be honest: you're kind of an imbecile.

We should be clear that there are plenty of partisans who are also pretty dumb and uninformed. Both sides are perfectly happy to have people vote for them for idiotic reasons. If you're voting for Obama because Mitt Romney once put his dog on the roof of his car, the Democrats will not object, just as the Republicans are happy to have you if you're voting for Romney because you heard on the radio that Obama was born in Kenya.

So next time you get disgusted at the campaigns, remind yourself that if we as a people were perfectly informed, and if the system was set up so that all our votes actually made a difference, elections would be staid and serious affairs where the candidates carefully laid out their ideas for where the country should go. It's not that campaigns don't routinely make inane, lowest-common-denominator appeals that fall on deaf ears, because they do. If anything, they think the voters are even dumber than they actually are. But the fault ultimately lies with the people who pull the levers.

Thus ends my rant. I reserve the right to contradict it at some point in the future when I'm in a better mood.

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