Monday, October 13, 2008

Revenge of the Paste Eaters: The Anatomy of a Swing Voter

The Myth of Undecided Stupidity

I recently took my daughter out for lunch at a local restaurant. With the check they gave me some jelly beans to place in the two jars up front labeled ‘Obama’ and ‘McCain’. To force decisiveness upon me they gave me 5, an odd number, so I could not split my vote. I like John MaCain and Barak Obama each as much as I have cared about any politician. For me it is a dream election. It is the equivalent of the Packers-Broncos Super Bowl (two teams I love) after so many years of Cowboys/Giants/Reskins-Bills (teams I despise, not unlike the last election). I sat there staring at my little gobs of sugar facing a decision 3 months before I was expecting to. Fortunately, on of the beans was cherry, which was delicious, and the two jars then received two apiece.

Of all the labels one can claim there are few that will stimulate such simultaneous rage and fawning as that of ‘undecided voter.’ There are so few of us who are ‘as of yet unaffiliated’[1] that a disproportionate amount of personal and institutional effort is expended to prevail upon our wills. At the same time, party line voters on either side see us as flakey. ‘You already know the voting records’ the argument goes, ‘what helpful information could you possibly still be holding out for?’ The implication (see cartoon) is that serious voters make their decision early based on data and undecideds are swayed by contrived and extraneous considerations like character and charisma.
This was further illustrated by a recent piece on Jon Stewart’s show where John Oliver described the undecided demographic as follows:

John Oliver: As you can see (undecided voters) fall into a variety of categories: Attention Seekers, Racist Democrats, the Chronically Insecure, and right here the Stupid. That is 45% of uncedideds. They are the swingeyest of the swing voters. And they, as they always do, will decide this election.

Stewart: Well that is a fascinating thing. How do you break down the Stupids.

Jon Oliver: Well ironically, it is a rather complex demographic. You’ve got your paste eaters, your numb skulls, your nitwits, your f@#ktards, people’s who’s heads get stuck in jars when they eat pickles, that’s a surprisingly large component, people who loose arguments to babies, douchenozzels, tiger petters…people who jump up and down on frozen lakes when the ice is too thin, shaved gorillas that have somehow acquired driver’s licenses, the voulentarily lobotomized, and, finally, cubs fans.

But implicit in thes assertions, serious and comedic, is the tenuous assumption that the groupings of issues under the headings ‘democrat’ and ‘republican’ are logical outworkings of a pair of unified world views that, between them, describe most Americans. Ironically, it was Jon Stewart (another guy who, at one time, liked both of these candidates[2]) who, in his book, did the best job of deconstructing this myth:

"Together, the two parties function like giant down comforters, allowing the candidates to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought...Each party has a platform, a prix fixe menu of beliefs making up its worldview. The candidate can choos one of two platforms, but remember - no substitutions. For example, do you support universal health care? Then you must also want a ban on assult weapons. Pro-limited government? Congratulations, you are also anti-abortion. Luckily, all human opinion falls neatly nto one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus, the two-party system elegently relflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought."

Conflicting Platforms

Back in primary season, I took one of those internet surveys that asks you a bunch of policy questions and then ranks the candidates based on their correspondence with your policy preferences. Here is how the rankings of the top four came out:


(with Guliani and Romeny at the back of the pack)

Like a surprising number of Xers (and even more millenials) I am a man without a party. Each reflects part of my worldview and values. Now let me be clear. I am NOT a moderate. I am a fanatical liberal…and an unapologetic conservative…just on different issues.

I am an environmentalist who thinks climate change is real and that we should spend gobs of money on alternative energy research.
But[3] I think any energy policy that does not prominently feature nuclear power is deeply flawed and based on fear rather than science.

I support a wide variety of government regulation to protect individuals from the profit motive[4] of corporations.
But I am wary of regulating to the point that innovation is smothered.

I am unapologetically pro-life
But my #1 issue is urban poverty (which indirectly affects the social conditions that make women feel the need to get abortions)

I am a huge supporter of affirmative action
But I think government needs to quantitatively evaluate its social spending and ruthlessly pull the plug on social programs that are not generating the results we expected

I’m a Fed who thinks my job (with many others) is worth tax payer money
But I think there is significant federal and state waste that needs to be cut

Why I like These Guys

In our sad era of cable news and talk radio we define ourselves morally by what we despise. Our fact entertainment industry needs antagonists and protagonists to sell their stories so events are only newsworthy if they highlight conflict. So I could pretty much get a free pass from everyone by claiming to hate both candidates. There is a much larger social penalty for liking a candidate someone hates than for hating a candidate someone likes. But I reject this and by claiming both Obama and McCain I open myself to charges of immorality by most of the country. I was much more popular last time around when I disliked both Bush and Kerry. But here is gist:


McCain was the only shot the republicans had at me. But I knew I’d vote for McCain against anyone but Obama. Only in the dream match up would I be an undecided again. John McCain has been my favorite politician since shortly after the 2000 election. He is a sane conservative who wasn’t beholden to the party and seemed to make decisions based on a healthy ratio of principal and pragmatism. I loved McCain-Feingold and was relieved by the game theory employed by the McCain 13. In fact, if I had to explain in one phrase why I liked John McCain it would have to be that he seems to be principled in precisely the right ways and pragmatic in precisely the right ways.

So I was devastated when he supported the surge. I thought the surge was a terrible idea.[5] I could not believe that McCain would stake his political career on such a desperate and dismal move. I was sad and I kind of made a deal with the ancient senator from Arizona. The surge became a test case. If he was right about this, then his cumalitve record, in my mind, justified his presidency. In my opinion, the surge was an unqualified success, and even as I cast my primary vote for Obama, I suspected McCain would be my November choice.


There are only two kinds of politicians I will consider for president at this point. Someone who supported the Iraq war from the start but clearly would have run it better or someone who opposed it from the start. [5.5]. I admire precisely the same quality in Barak’s opposition to the war as I did in McCain’s support of the surge. Political courage. Putting their political reputation on the line based on what they think is best for my daughter’s future. For me Barak’s opposition to the Iraq war would give him more freedom to manage it and this is his greatest policy advantage.

There are many other liberal issues that I agree with Obama on (see above). In the final count, I align with the left on more issues than the right. But, like McCain, Obama’s greatest assets are not his angles on the issues. I think the United States President’s role is a cultural role more than a political role. In the era of the 24 hour news cycle his rhetoric sets the cultural tone for our country. And Barak offers us a conciliatory oratory. A Kenedyesqe orator that can assuage our fears and reconcile some of our differences. He could be our generation’s Kenedy or Regan, the president that we compare all future presidents to. He could also find himself in way over his head, but if Regan and Schwarzenegger have taught us anything it is that experience is not what makes an executive successful, it is the people he or she surrounds him/herself with.

Post Script: The Choice

So with three weeks left, I am no longer undecided, which is too bad since I was having so much fun deciding if I was a paste eater or a tiger petter. Unfortunately, since the orriginal writing of this piece, my favorite politician, has made the dicision for me. For some reason which mystifies me, McCain has moved right, since he wraped up the primary. I could understand[6] moving right to win the base and then moving left for the general, but MaCain stuck to his unpopular views about drilling, taxes and immigration while he was taking hits from other conservatives and then abandoned these principaled, moderate positions when he was trying to win the middle. I will never understand this. And I’m afraid the selection of Palin (as arguably the most important VP selection in history given McCain's health and age) is just mystifying. She seems like a nice lady. I'd vote for her for mayor. But if the Bush presidency has taught us anything it is that confidence is not a substitute for competence. And, in the end, I just think Barak’s conciliatory rhetoric is what our country needs right now. So I am voting for Obama, but I understand and respect and refuse to demonize the McCain vote and proudly embrace my fellow undecideds. I’d gladly remove the pickle jars from your heads any day.
[1] ref – ‘Brother Where Art Thou’
[2] This, for me, is actually the biggest disappointment of the election. McCain held the record for Daily Show appearances and he and Jon seemed to have a lot of mutual respect and affection. But as soon as McCain got the nomination then Jon turned against him (while basically giving Barak a comedic free pass) proving once and for all that he is not an equal opportunity mocker but a democrat shill.
[3] Or, rather, because of my environmentalism.
[4] Note: I am not using profit motive here as a pejorative. We often talk about the big bad corporations who make decisions soley on the citeria of profit maximization. The thing that bugs me is that most of the people whining about this have 401k’s which means THEY are the corporations. By law, publically held corporations HAVE TO maximize profit. A few companies have remained privately owned for just this reason (e.g. In-and-Out Burger, a faith based business that has a more holistic approach). Thus, non-profit societal values have to be implemented by government regulation.
[5] I know, I also thought Ladamin Tomlinson and Shaq would be flops at the professional level.
[5.5] I am unmoved by the Edwards/Hillary/Kerry argument that 'Bush is a moron but he outsmarted us.' They did not have the political courage to stand up to a the administration when the country was Hawkish. I was depending on them to make that decision on my behalf and they blew it.
[6] Though I loath it.


Adam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joel said...

Given the reasons why some of the decided voters in my office have given on why they're voting for a particular candidate, I'd be much more likely to label them "paste eaters". Somehow I like to think that undecided voters are actually really thoughtful, not that they're really dumb.

Fortunately, I decided weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

this is the thing i miss. I'm a true blue Democrat. I'm a pro-union feminist with a bleeding heart and passion for social justice issues. I've canvassed and made phone calls in this election and the last. But I can respect someone that thinks that smaller government is a better strategy, and that we shouldn't be building up the deficit to support programs we don't need.

The problem is we don't argue about these kinds of things anymore. Instead we spread rumor an innuendo that people are "muslim terrorists" or conspiracy theories about deals made to grab power. We are yelling at each other about how the other candidate is unfit to lead, and the atmosphere gets too loud for us to talk rationally about what strategy is best for the nation.

In college I had some very close friends who were republicans, and we would talk about politics and what we thought was best for the country, and it was interesting, and I respected their opinions even though I don't agree. I listen to a liberal talk radio show on the conservative talk radio station in Boston (yes, there is one) and what you hear now about how people feel about the candidates is so irrational it completely removes the ability to talk about strategy, because you have to address the crazy misinformation out there.

I've actually talked to a lot of undecided voters in NH (I think out of the 50 homes we approached, maybe 5 of them had their minds made up, and it was split with a slight favor for McCain). The big thing a lot of them brought up was trust. They didn't feel that they could trust either politician. New Hampshire voters seem to be much more concerned about the individual and their leadership than they are with party platforms. They wanted a leader they felt they could trust. They felt that the McCain of old, the straight talker, had been swallowed up by the political machine and had been replaced by someone they didn't recognize or trust. On the other hand, the voters didn't know Obama that well, and some of the robo-call smears that the republican party were using were brought up (Obama is a muslim, Obama isn't a loyal american). I think at least some of it has to do with his "other-ness", and also McCain has been popular in NH for a long time, so he is just better known to the voters here. We actually met a lot of Hillary voters who would have voted for her over either (which i thought was awesome, being a Hillary supporter myself).

Anyhow, for me there are too many issues that are important to me that I can't ever imagine voting republican, but I like being able to talk to someone about the reasons people vote for republicans that isn't fear-mongering and slanderous, and i feel like we have fewer and fewer opportunities for that in this current climate.

William said...

Unfortunately it's not as easy as tallying up the pros and cons on all you favorite issues, then picking the one that comes out with more check marks than x's. Some issues are more important than others and The Issue for our times is abortion on demand versus a culture of life. Call me a one issue voter, call it a litmus test, however you want to belittle it, but a candidate's stand on this issue reveals something about their worldview that affects nearly every other decision they will make on our behalf. Obama's rabid defense of abortion as a state senator (including witholding care from live infants that survive abortion) says much more to me than conciliatory rhetoric in the campaign season. The rationalization that social conditions in the inner city indirectly affect abortion are invalid for two reasons: first, because leftists created the culture of dependence that characterizes urban poverty and then offer the "solution" of abortion; and second, because American urban poor are in much better circumstances than most of the world, including societies that would be horrified at the thought of killing their unborn babies for convenience or material wellbeing.

stanford said...

A agree that the issues are not equally weighted in importance. But they are also not equally weighted in attainability. The church has gotten into bed with the pro-corporation right for decades in the hope of overturning Row v. Wade and are no closer. Most republicans just do not care. They just count on our windmill chasing votes and pursue their own agendas. We are getting farther and farther away from winning this issue. So I turn my attention to the social conditions that cause abortions. We spent several years in urban youth ministry in Buffalo’s east side. I guarantee you, from first hand experience, that it is a far more complex need than your simplistic characterization of “leftist created cultures of dependence.” It is a serious, Biblical, justice issue that should plague the Biblically literate Christian conscience. Apart from the abortion issue, kids BORN into urban poverty (in our country and across the world) are as serious a Biblical ‘life’ issue as the tragic death of the unborn.

William said...


I realize my comment about cultures of dependence was glib and overly simplistic. I realize the problem is more complex than that, even if I don't know exactly what the needs are. It occurs to me, though, that there are things these people need that government cannot give them (ie, love) and things that government can give them (effective law enforcement, for example) that are considered too oppressive or politically incorrect by traditional liberals.

Believe me, this issue does concern me (and most conservatives) - we just feel that the needs are things that government has no business getting involved with. Spiritual needs will never be addressed by government.

You are absolutely correct that various parts of the church have identified much too strongly with a particular party. And not just with republicans. You seem to be in the opposite of my situation - you are an untraditional liberal challenging a traditionally conservative denomination, I am an "ultraconservative" in the left-leaning Episcopal church. Both have erred equally, in opposite directions.

Part of the bile of my post (for which I apologize) comes from not having a dog in this race, or any other in which I have been eligible to vote. Like a vegetarian in a steakhouse, I'm offered a center-right statist and a center-left statist, and asked to make a choice based on the asinine sloganeering that passes for political debate. There seems to be no room for thoughtful discussion. Conservatives are told, "shut up and vote against the socialist" and we must because there is no realistic alternative. I am hoping that part of the fallout from this election is the creation of a couple more political parties to alleviate the platform problem that John Stewart identified. Well, a guy can dream.


kelly said...

I absolutely agree with you, Stan, about helping those kids who ARE born. I spent a year working in a short term residence for kids removed from their homes by DSS, and the needs of thsee kids are so many, and the resources are far too few. It frustrates me to see the time that both sides spend protesting and counter protesting around clinics. Why don't we take that time to volunteer to babysit kids so single mothers can go to work? Or playing with kids in homeless shelters? Or teaching parenting courses to pregnant teens? Or mentoring kids in the foster care system (what happens to kids who live their lives in the system and age out is tragic beyond words. These kids generally don't finish high school, and age out into poverty with scant resources available to keep them from being homeless and on the streets). Why don't we work to make reproductive health care affordable for all women? And I think that abstenence only education should be avaiable in the schools for parents who object to comprehensive sex ed and want to opt out, but that comprehensive should be the default. Let's teach these kids how they get pregnant and get diseases, and how they can KEEP from getting pregnant and getting sick.

I am pro-choice, mostly because I don't feel qualified to make this decision for every woman...just me. But I'm not pro-abortion. I would love to live in a world where women almost never have to make this decision. I wish both sides could do more to work together to decrease demand for abortions by helping young girls at risk, and women in poverty. The problem seems to be that both sides have become so entrenched, and the leaders of both sides are so militant that we can't seem to have a civil discussion about the causes and what each side can do to reduce the demand, which is a shame because THAT'S where we have the most realistic opportunity for change.

I miss the opportunity to have rational discussions about these issues with people I don't neccesarily agree with. here in non-america (aka boston), I'm kinda middle-of-the-road. Thanks for the open comment section.

the mathisons said...

Stan, I want to know what you think about what is being said toward Obama and if he is elected as president we will become a socialist government. Do you agree? If so, what is your opinion on socialism? I am having a hard time with this.

Danielle said...

Hello there, joyfulkel pointed me in the direction of your blog and I really enjoyed reading your perspective. I wish more people (on both sides of the political spectrum) were as thoughtful as you are.

I have always said that I would vote for the "right republican" in a presidential election, but that person has yet to come for me. I thought McCain might have been that person, a few years ago, but personally I like Obama much more and I find McCain's position on many issues to be abominable.

It is too bad that the dominant political parties act like comforters, as you said. I'm moderate, liberal, or conservative, depending on the issue, and no one candidate ever satisfies my beliefs fully. Obama comes close.

I think joyfulkel needs to make it her life mission to start an organization that brings traditionally pro-life and pro-choice folks together to reduce the demand for abortions.

stanford said...

Well, I have to say, I am blown away by the interest in this. I actually thought it was one of my weaker posts. Thanks everyone for reading and reacting.

Kelly Heft and Danielle, I could not agree more about pro-lifers and pro-choicer getting together to fight the social conditions that encourage abortions. I have been advocating this for a while. Also, separation leads to caricature and the current state of our political discourse. Working together towards a common goal might add some humanity to the debate.

William, your diagnosis about us coming at this from different directions is right on. I completely agree that many Main Line churches have been co-opted by the left in precisely the same inappropriate way as the republicans have seduced evangelicals. And thanks for the 'untraditional liberal' label. I like it.

Kelli Mathison, I really appreciate the sincerity of your question. I think the accusation that Obama is a socialist is mainly smokescreen (and with the 'palling around with terrorists' comments making me sadder and sadder about the McCain camp). Our country (like most) is a mix of capitalist and redistribution philosophies. Neither approach works out in its pure form. It is a continuum. Republicans lean slightly capitalist and democrats lean slightly towards redistribution but the difference are incremental (a few % on the highest marginal rates of the tax structure). Much of what Obama is proposing just undoes the aggressive tax cuts that Bush Jr instituted. Somehow this is no longer being conveyed as a continuum but a step function, like Obama has stepped over some line and is suddenly something completely different. I think the Bush tax cuts were a mistake, so i am happy to see them mostly undone. But that is a small incremental policy choice (which i could be wrong about)...not a huge decision between a capitalist and a socialist. So I guess my direct answer to your question is that I think the accusations are mostly without merit.

Note: If any of you are wondering why I removed the fist comment, it was spam.