Six undecided voters in one family: mine

October 28, 2012

While crossing the Bob Michel Bridge on the way to the Ronald Reagan trail in Peoria, Ill. last weekend, it occurred to me that just when I thought there couldn’t be anyone who hadn’t yet made up his or her mind about how to vote on Nov. 6, I’d found half a dozen of them at one wedding. Yes, six in just one family: mine. 

Living in Washington, where politics is a 24/7 conversation, I couldn’t believe that they hadn’t yet figured out whether President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney most deserves their vote.

Here’s what four of them have to say about why they’re still undecided.

First, there’s Mark Martens, a long-time resident of Oregon, a state that’s leaning toward giving its seven electoral college votes to Obama. Mark, 50, teaches math at a large public high school where about half the kids stay around long enough to graduate. He’s a dedicated teacher who arrives at school two hours before class begins so that he has time to think and prepare for his day. He’s also at the forefront of a public educational system that is losing financial support. Oregon’s per pupil spending on PK-12 public school students was 90.7 percent of the national average in 2010, down from 93.3 percent in 2005. He knows that keeping kids in school is the best way to ensure a bright future for them, but also recognizes that he has to do so with a shrinking budget.

Thus, it would seem that Mark would be solidly behind the president, who wants to invest an additional $25 billion for jobs in public education. Yet, Mark’s not so sure. While appreciating what the president has achieved, he’s also disappointed in what he hasn’t achieved.

“He didn’t keep his promise,” Mark says, referring to the president’s inability to achieve the bipartisan consensus promised in the 2008 campaign and a reason why Obama may not get his vote this time around.

Mark’s niece Katie Martens, 24, is one of those young people who’s not quite sure whether she’ll even vote. She’s not alone. A Gallup poll taken last summer showed that only six of every 10 registered 18- to 29-year old voters definitely intend to vote this year, compared with about 80 percent in other age groups. Although Katie, who is in her first year of graduate studies in Milwaukee, is close enough to Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s hometown to be targeted by campaign ads, she still hasn’t learned enough about the candidates to know who will win her vote.

“With starting grad school and all, I just haven’t paid much attention,” Katie admitted.

While Katie may not be informed enough to know for whom to cast her vote, she knows a lot about policies that have helped her. One of these is Obama’s health-care reform (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). After graduating from college, Katie spent a couple of years working at temporary or part-time jobs — none of which offered health care benefits — before returning to school.

“I’m glad I could stay on my parents’ health care plan,” she noted. Her dad, who paid her premiums, agreed. Romney has vowed to act “to repeal Obamacare” from his first day in office.

Pittsburgh native Greg Caffas, 22, is stymied by a dilemma that many voters face.

“I like Obama’s social policies, but I think Romney has better policies to get the economy growing,” said Caffas, who studied business at Penn State and is working at his dad’s civil engineering firm and applying for law school.

Caffas has lived nearly his entire life in Pennsylvania, a state whose 8.2 percent unemployment rate puts it above the 7.8 percent national average. The state’s now rated a tossup according to Real Clear Politics, although if voters decide solely on economic issues, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes will be headed Romney’s way.

Finally, there’s Columbus, Ohio, resident Chris Haak, 24, who’s holding down a blue-collar job while considering whether to go to graduate school. Ohio’s a battleground state, and Chris has seen more than enough political ads to “last a lifetime.”  Chris plans to vote, well, maybe.

What’s the key to getting these voters to make up their minds? It’s not clear, though getting them registered and then to the polls may be the trick. That’s no easy matter. While a recent Washington Post poll shows that 85 percent of registered voters plan to vote, according to the Census Dept., only about half of all eligible voters actually cast a ballot during presidential election years.  The main reason they don’t register and vote?  They’re not interested.

Joann M. Weiner teaches economics, finance and fiscal policy at George Washington University.

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