Monday, November 3, 2008

Understanding the undecided vote

I’ve heard or read a number of people who are simply mystified by the relatively large “undecided” category of voters in this election. Beyond mystified, actually-- many of them scoff at the idea of being undecided at this point.

My guess is that the race won’t be quite as close as the “undecided” numbers suggest-- in other words, we’re not in for another 2000 marathon, I’m betting. (And for what it’s worth,
a full 20% of voters were undecided as late as September 2000.)

Most of the scoffers are either
single-issue voters, straight-ticket devotees, or those who love to believe the spin, rumors, and lies. Anytime I hear, “he [or she] scares me” I realize I’m dealing with a scoffer-- and probably one who has put political movement (above all else, including God’s sovereignty) forth as the hope for our future security and happiness.

The real surprise (though most of the scoffers don’t think of it in this way) is how many voters are undecided because they are finding their normal categories for decision-making challenged or even turned upside-down. But considering these gives answer to the question, “why still undecided?” Here’s a glimpse of what I mean:
  • Categories of faith: this could be seen as a “neither,” “both,” or “really? him?” category. Senator Obama is a professing believer, and has spoken openly about his Christian faith. Senator McCain is, at best, tight-lipped about whatever faith he professes (some will say that his choice of Governor Palin was a direct appeal to the faith-based vote). Even if you doubt the sincerity of Senator Obama’s profession-- or worse, believe the misinformation about him being an alleged closet-Muslim-- that, at best, makes him and Senator McCain even on what is typically a category where the Republican candidate has strength. (As an aside: I think President George W. Bush has done a lot to erode this as a Republican stronghold. While I don’t doubt his faith, he has been inconsistent, at best, in applying his faith to the decisions he has made.)
  • Categories of role: I think almost everyone has assumed that the first woman elected to be president or vice-president would be a political liberal-- thus, most Christians were comfortable that they could oppose the politics behind the leader, and not have to speak to the gender or role issues. Governor Palin turned that on its head, stepping forth as a professing evangelical Christian AND a Feminist (she’s a member of Feminists for Life) and breaking all of the stereotypes. Now Christians are forced to decide: do they really oppose Feminism? Do they inherently oppose a woman in leadership? Can they be consistent in voting for a ticket that could put a woman in the Oval Office, while still maintaining that she mustn’t hold an ecclesiastical office? There are no easy answers here, but I think most Christians who hold a complementarian view about women’s roles recognize that they have a difficult decision in supporting the McCain/Palin ticket.
  • Categories of ability: There’s no doubt that Senator McCain has more experience and preparation to serve as president, by far: distinguished military service, multiple decades in national politics, and broad and deep familiarity with foreign policy (and the people involved) add up to an impressive resumé, and Senator Obama cannot hope to compete at this level. However, Senator McCain faces an obstacle of inability that his experience has no sway over: perception, both domestically and internationally. Given that the perception of Senator McCain is that he would essentially represent a continuation of current policies-- which have been increasingly unpopular-- he is facing something of a lame-duck posture, whether he is actually that close to President Bush’s policies or not. On the other hand, Senator Obama is seen worldwide (and, for the most part, within the U.S.) as a break from status quo and a pursuit of true change. Couple that with Senator Obama’s support with congress, which will probably increase in number of Democrats, and whatever ability Senator McCain has is balanced out.
  • Categories of issue: Yes, some of the single-issue topics polarize the candidates. On abortion, for example, there is little doubt that Senator Obama supports legislation that protects abortion rights, while Senator McCain is a strong opponent of abortion (and its legalization). On other issues, however, what should be important to Christians is not necessarily a shared priority with Senator McCain. Education and poverty, for example, don’t really rank as significant issues with Senator McCain, but Senator Obama has highlighted both as areas of priority. Even on the abortion issue, Senator McCain’s lack of substance on poverty undercuts the viability of any progress there, since a decrease in abortion will certainly amount to an increase in social need. Isolating the issues doesn’t help the voter understand which candidate is a better one. The media hasn’t helped, with some painting Obama as a socialist (he’s not), while others declare McCain as a warmonger (he’s not).
  • Categories of tradition: Some voters are beginning to question the assumption that the “right candidate” will automatically equal the advancement of their political agenda. After 20 years of Pro-Life presidents in the White House, the legality and restriction of abortion is roughly the same as it was 30 years ago. With health care taking a prominent place in the election process for the past 20 years, the reforms that have been advanced by subsequent presidents have not made much headway in improving care or making it more affordable. Many of the undecided voters seem to be favorable to looking past these sorts of issues (what have been “traditional” deciding points for elections) and at other factors.
  • No “good” candidates: More than anything I’ve heard this season, the comment I’ve gotten the most is, “I’ll have to pick the lesser of two evils.” This seems utterly unsatisfactory when it comes to how we pick our next president. My sense from the undecideds I’ve talked to is that their consciences are heavy about this attitude, and they have been holding out for further input that might shape the idea of “good” or “bad” perceptions of the candidates-- or inwardly debating a write-in.

Given these points, I don’t have difficulty understanding the undecided voter’s ambivalence. What about you-- do you have any thoughts about it?

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