Undecided. Can It Be Me?

By Meredith Chaiken
Sunday, January 6, 2008

I could never understand how any voter could be undecided. Until now.

In 2003, I spent eight months in New Hampshire with the John Kerry campaign. New Hampshire cherishes its privileged voting status, so Granite Staters gleefully fill their calendars with kaffeeklatches and town hall meetings. They watch campaign ads -- on purpose! And yet, well into December of that year, many voters still hadn't picked their man.

I couldn't fathom how people could be so saturated with political information and still not know how they were going to vote.

But now, even after the Iowa caucuses and with the New Hampshire primary just two days away, I find myself struggling to decide which Democratic candidate to support. Since I'm a D.C. resident, this has nearly no electoral significance. But since I'm a former campaign staffer and now a professional pollster, it has had an intense psychological impact. I'm tormented! How could this be? I've built my career on persuading others to support a certain candidate, and here I can't even convince myself. It's January in possibly the longest and most heavily covered campaign season in history. Why can't I make up my mind?

Of course, I'm not alone. According to a December Washington Post-ABC News poll, 51 percent of those expected to vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and 61 percent of those expected to vote in the Republican primary said that they may well switch candidates before Election Day. Talking Points Memo headlined a poll analysis post " 'Undecided' Running Away With South Carolina Dem Race."

Political scientists tend to explain the undecided-voter phenomenon by noting that undecideds are typically less partisan, less activist and less informed than other voters. When they ultimately make their choice, the thinking goes, they take their cues from more informed political elites. But this doesn't explain those information-saturated undecideds in New Hampshire. It doesn't help explain me, a veritable poster child for political elites.

I'm reluctant to blame the campaigns for my predicament (and not just because I travel in their world). With countless debates, millions spent on advertising and hundreds of rallies and meet-ups, these campaigns have made an honest effort to communicate with voters and engage supporters. And I know that even when people are given all the right information, some still have trouble making up their minds.

I saw this in 2004 in New Hampshire, where we talked to environmentalists about Kerry's record on global warming, teachers about his votes on early-childhood education and veterans about his military service. Even after we'd answered all their questions, some voters remained uncertain. Similarly, in focus groups, we'd spend two solid hours going over the candidates' backgrounds and their positions. We'd discuss the concerns and values and character traits that underlie a race. And still, there were always some participants who walked away saying that they wanted to do more "research" before making a choice.

Only now am I starting to understand their hesitation.

In trying to make up my mind about this race, I've done somewhat more research than the average primary voter. To try to differentiate among the candidates' positions, I turned to The Washington Post's "Choose Your Candidate" online political quiz. The very first question asked which candidate's statement about health care I agreed with most. I agreed with everyone -- let's expand access to health care -- but I don't have an opinion on how best to implement it. I leave that to the experts. So I can't use this as a basis for choosing a candidate.

On issues such as Social Security, on which I do have an opinion (don't privatize; increase the retirement age), none of the candidates expresses views like mine. In fact, none of them says much at all. I'm divining their ability to lead by sifting through those who "oppose," are "against" and "do not support" bad policies. I feel as though I'm being secretly filmed: Yes, I get it, they're all alike.

At the end, the Post Web site told me that I'm essentially split among three candidates. I'm closest in viewpoint to the one I'd most hate to be stuck in an elevator with -- just 30 seconds would be too much quality time. This is like picking a president on "The Dating Game"; once the curtain is lifted and I put faces to the candidates, they become a little less attractive.

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