The undecided voter: Four profiles of indecision

Undecided voters have the power to re-elect Obama or to elevate Romney to the highest office in the land, writes Young.

US President Barack Obama voting
Undecided voters "hold the future", the next four years, in their hands [EPA]

With polls indicating that the American presidential election is “too close to call”, focus has shifted on a tiny fraction of the electorate: undecided voters. These are the folks with the power to re-elect US President Barack Obama or to elevate former governor Mitt Romney to the highest office in the land. Undecided voters hold the future, the next four years, in their hands. 

Although the exact make-up of this “I still don’t know for whom I’ll vote” population is unknown, a variety of news outlets have settled on a single type of voter as being representative of this influential “on the fence” electorate: young, lightly educated, lower income, white women. 

In the final days preceding the US presidential election, this “undecided voter” will be unavoidable in the coverage of the campaign. Odds are high that avowedly undecided women will waffle before television cameras when asked a very straightforward question: Who will get your vote? 

The focus on this particular demographic ignores many others who similarly are unsure of whether they will commit their vote to a candidate, or even vote in the election. Here are four profiles of the undecided. 

Non-single issue voters and true single issue believers 

Although few will admit this, the reason that lightly educated, lower income, white women have been identified as the undecided voter is that this group has the least in common with either presidential candidate. 

Conventional wisdom is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, wealthy Harvard men, are alien to this segment of the electorate. Can either man truly understand their perspectives on the world and their experiences? 

Unfortunately, the emphasis on women as the face of the undecided population disconcertingly aligns with sexist stereotypes of female indecision. 

It can (and should) be argued that the hesitance to name a vote recipient just might anchor itself in a savvy, well-considered and appreciable awareness of how all of their varying interests (economic, gender, etc) have not been embraced by either major presidential candidate. 

For example, a person might view Romney as being well qualified to resurrect the national economy and as likely to chip away at hard-fought women’s rights. Similarly, a person could view Obama as a poor steward of the national economy but as the ideal (or, comparatively, a better) champion for women’s issues. 

The prospect of voting simultaneously for and against your self-interest can stun a person into inaction or indecision. 

Even people who identify strongly with a single issue can be struck by indecision. An ardently pro-life person is likely to be pro-life in every situation in which a life is threatened. 

Theoretically, it would make sense for that person to be against abortion, against the death penalty and against the spread of automatic assault weapons within cities. 

In practice, “pro-life” voters must choose among candidates whose perspectives on life are not consistent. Can a pro-life person vote for a person who will protect an unborn child but allow an adult to be executed by the government? 

What could account for a person’s “undecided” status is the degree of their adherence to their beliefs, core values and intersectional interests. 

Independent voters 

A few weeks ago, Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, explained his voting philosophy on a televised news programme. 

A prominent figure in the Independent Party, Ventura noted (to paraphrase) that true independents only vote for third-party candidates. An independent blazes a third path and doesn’t swing back-and-forth between the two big political parties. 

Obviously, an independent voter is not necessarily an undecided voter. That being said, independent voters have to decide whether they will vote for a third-party candidate or a person who actually has a chance to win. 

More to the point, independent voters – similar to the issue-oriented voters – must decide whether their commitment to an unelectable third-party candidate is more important to them than the election of the more objectionable of the two major party candidates. 

In 2000, the “swing state” Florida was hotly contested and, in the end, required US Supreme Court intervention to determine the winner of the state and, by extension, the presidential election. 

The winner (and newly elected President) won by slightly more than 500 votes. In that year and in that state, almost 140,000 people voted for third-party candidates, people other than the Republican or Democratic nominees. 

A person who is seriously concerned about the future of the country might feel torn about supporting a third-party candidate rather than selecting one of the two major political party candidates who more closely represents his or her interests. 

Battleground state voters 

If you have ever seen an episode of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, then you have got a glimpse of the pleasures of being heavily courted and seen the levels of deep personal angst that can result from having to give only one candidate a rose. 

The people in battleground states are feeling the love of the presidential candidates. They’re also getting bombarded with negative campaigns warning them about the dangers of selecting one candidate over the other. 


 Inside Story US 2012 – US electorate:
Not spoilt for choice?

In “battleground states” – Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Nevada – the barrage of campaign advertisements is astounding and unrelenting. It is common to hear or see an ad for Romney immediately followed by one for Obama, or vice versa. This goes on for hours, every day. 

Like a flash-bomb, these campaign ads can be disorienting. A candidate’s complex platform gets reduced to a blur of sound bites or less, sometimes just floating words drawn from their own and their opponent’s ads. 

Obama: “forward”, “approve this message”, “personal attacks”. Romney: “China”, “class sizes don’t matter”, “plan for the future.” This blur creates confusion. 

Even for likely voters with an interest in politics, these campaign commercials can slowly transform active political interest into disinterest and perhaps even apathy. 

‘Lazy’ voters 

Let’s be honest. Some people are lazy. They push things off: mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, painting that room, sending “thank you” cards. They’ll say that they are busy… but they have the time.  

The news coverage of the presidential campaigns would lead you to believe that the American people are actively interested in the election and, therefore, will be active participants in the election. In reality, a bit more than half of registered voters will vote. 

In 2008, when the economy was in shambles and people were given an historic opportunity to vote (or not) for the first black president, approximately 40 per cent of registered voters stayed home on election day. 

In “battleground” states like Ohio and Florida, more than 30 per cent of the voting population did not vote – neither in person nor via absentee ballot. 

To characterise these no-show, non-voters as lazy is, admittedly, an unfair characterisation. Sometimes, life happens: a sick baby, a hurricane landing on your front lawn, a car breakdown. 

More often, a person decides not to vote, perhaps out of frustration with the political system’s inability to represent their interests (see above) or out of a belief that their vote does not matter or out of sheer laziness. 

The number of voters who opt not to vote for either major presidential candidate (by not voting at all or by selecting a third-party candidate) typically exceeds the number voting for the winner. A vote has the power to change the course of history – when exercised.  

Harvey Young is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. A cultural historian, he is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body.