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.

Comments

Nice rant.

I wonder how much education has to do with our general lack of attention to these things that will affect our lives so immensely. What are we thinking about if not our kids and how they will fare in this new economy? Why aren't we really concerned with healthcare and losing everything if we get sick? What do we need to get wacked upside the head with to realize we are killing ourselves as we kill the planet?

It seems to me that we should all leave school with a diploma and an automatic voter registration. One is needed for your participation in the workplace, the other is needed for your participation in society. Because whether you vote or not, you affect the outcome of the election. Our power as humans AND citizens to change the world with ideas should be encouraged starting in grade school. Then maybe we'd pay more attention.

Undecided voters make up only 3-5% of the electorate. Statistically 57% are non-college graduates and many of the rest are women and Hispanics. Most can be characterized as low information voters. Now, reduce that narrow cohort further to only include the ones living in the 11 battleground states who actually have the proper ID to be allowed to vote. These are the voters who will decide the election.

We aren't getting the election we deserve because they are getting the election they deserve.

Very disappointing column. I'd expect a journalist to be better informed, and a columnist to be more thoughtful. If the campaigns were actually obsessed with undecided swing voters, why did Romney pick an extreme VP? Obviously, to improve turnout in his base, not to swing moderates. I'd like to see readers at TAP get the copy we deserve, Paul!

I happen to be a pair of "boots on the ground" in a swing state myself. If I weren't so motivated I would find it completely impractical to use the popular press to obtain reliable information about the candidates. I hear it all the time when I knock on doors.

I agree with the comments above that voting needs better public support. We need to imitate Australia - make voting mandatory, polls on Saturday ,etc. We're not getting what we deserve, we're being defrauded by the right wing.

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