Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012: AHA Roundtable

Fetishization of the "Undecided Voter"

Robin Einhorn, October 2012

Robin EinhornOne of the striking features of last night's debate has actually been striking throughout the 2012 campaign and, for that matter, the last few presidential campaigns: the fetishization of the "undecided voter."  Is the idea that the outcome rests in the hands of people who are waiting for all the evidence to come in -- or, perhaps, who just realized that there is an election happening -- deeply worrisome or simply preposterous?  I'm guessing preposterous.

The first obvious question, assuming that there really is a significant pool of "undecided voters," is who can they be?  And if there are actually more of them than the 82 who appeared on the stage at Hofstra last night, wouldn't they have been more likely to have watched the Yankees and Tigers than President Obama and Mitt Romney?  Evidence from Wikipedia suggests that the 82 residents of Nassau County might have been available because of a propensity to be Mets fans.  CNN, by the same token, may have been able to field a focus group of 35 undecided voters in Columbus because San Francisco eliminated Cincinnati last week and Cleveland had a terrible year.

"Undecided" can easily look like a synonym for "low information."  This is the argument of the brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch, "Undecided Voter," which captures the combination of ignorance and unctuous moralism that we sometimes see on the exams of students who try to make up for not studying by filling bluebooks with vapid posturing.  In the sketch, posted on both NBC and Hulu, the undecided voters insist that their questions be answered with specifics, since "we're not impressed by political spin or thirty second sound bites."  In a typical moment, a married couple asks about the length of the president's term, make several guesses (not including four years), realize that "for life" could be a logical possibility, and then turn on the earnest civic concern: "if it's for life, frankly, we're not comfortable with that."

At the same time that many journalists fetishize the undecided voter, they also stress the polarization of modern American politics.  We are now thoroughly familiar with the notion that Democrats and Republicans watch different TV news channels, buy different books on Amazon, and don't even seem to speak to each other all that often. The broadly vilified mainstream media decry this development, since it is precisely what has turned "mainstream" into a term of abuse.  Hence their need to find undecideds who might possibly find their coverage relevant.

There is nothing all that novel in this situation.  In some respects, it harkens back to what U.S. political historians have long called "the party period."  Although there have been serious challenges to this construct, it captures three key features of 19th-century American politics: high voter turnout, heavily partisan voting, and a powerful influence of partisan identities in the larger culture.

The first and most obvious feature, the turnouts, are not part of our current political landscape.  The percentage of eligible voters who turned out in presidential elections hovered between 70 and 80 percent in the party period, compared to between 50 and 60 percent since the 1960s.  A dramatic drop in the 1890s reflected rule changes that made voting more difficult and, in the South, the disfranchisement of African Americans in particular.  But these transparently antidemocratic changes were not the whole story.  Turnout also dropped because the political parties lost control of the election process and the press.

Among the changes in the election process, the key one was the advent of the Australian ballot.  Today, the phrase "party ticket" is a metaphor, but in the 19th century it was a piece of paper printed by a party, listing its candidates for all offices, and distributed by its functionaries at the polls.  The whole modern rigmarole of "getting on the ballot" is an artifact of the switch to ballots that are printed by governments, list the various candidates for each office, and often are framed to encourage ticket splitting by showing voters the candidates' names more prominently than their party affiliations.

The other big change was the press.  In the 19th century, newspapers functioned openly and proudly as "party organs."  They were funded by the parties, edited by party leaders, read by partisan audiences, and filled with partisan slants on all subjects.  The rise of a press funded by commercial and industrial advertising gradually produced the professional norms of mid-20th century journalism, particularly the idea of a nonpartisan "objectivity."  As Nicholas Lemann recently pointed out, nostalgia for an authoritative Walter Cronkite means yearning for a media landscape that was dominated by a handful of powerful corporations.

We now have the partisan culture without the high voter turnouts.  Is it the worst of both worlds?  Possibly.  But at least we will have the World Series while we wait for the undecideds to decide, either how to vote or whether to be voters.

Robin Einhorn is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.