Undecided voters

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(Host) Do you think campaigns are hard-fought contests over deeply held political views? Think again, says commentator Allen Gilbert.

(Gilbert) “Undecided voters” are getting a lot of attention this year. Turn on TV, even for a few minutes, and you’ll see both parties fighting for their attention. How exactly do undecided voters make up their mind? The answer, if you’re a decided voter, may disappoint you: To most undecided voters, a candidate’s positions don’t make that much difference.

That’s what Louis Menand concludes in a recent New Yorker magazine article. Menand, a Harvard professor who describes himself as an intellectual historian, says that the seminal work on voter behavior is a 1964 book, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics by Philip Converse.

According to Converse, only about 10 percent of the public has an established political belief system a system that grasps how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy.

Another 40 percent of citizens, according to Converse, vote on the basis of self-interest. 25 percent form an opinion based on whether times are good or bad. And the remainder form an opinion from issues that have no real substance.

So the idea that elections express the will of the people is illusory. In voters’ minds, ideology and issues melt into what Converse calls idiosyncratic clusters of ideas and attitudes. For example, in the 1992 election the most widely known fact about the first George Bush was that he hated broccoli. 86 percent of voters knew the name of the Bushs’ dog. (It was Millie.) Yet only 15 percent knew that Bush favored the death penalty (as did Clinton). It’s not that voters don’t know anything, Menand says. It’s just that they don’t know politics.

Three theories, Menand says, have been offered to explain what’s going on with voting behavior. The first is that most voters respond to slogans, misinformation, sensation, and random personal associations, not substantive political arguments. American political history is just a random walk through a series of electoral options, Menand says of this theory.

The second theory is that elections are really struggles among the elite, the tiny fraction of Americans who understand the issues. These elites communicate their views to voters in cues and images. Democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face, is how Menand describes this theory.

The third theory holds that indeed most voters do respond to cues from others and base their political choices on these cues. But their choices aren’t irrational; they’re just using short-cuts to reach their voting decision — a sort of low-information rationality, Menand says.

For Menand, the third theory is the most plausible, and it does the most to salvage democratic values from the electoral wreckage, he says. He points out that the political parties themselves are shortcuts. They offer a quick guide to which candidate you might like most, even though you might not know much about the candidate’s positions.

Menand’s article is not for the politically weak of heart. But it may help to explain some of the fatuous political ads we’re seeing on TV every day.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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