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The Undecided Voter Revealed

We asked America’s undecided voters to explain themselves. They gave us an earful.

Why can't undecided voters just make up their minds already?

By Digital Vision.

Mitt Romney may have hacked my email. A week ago, I asked undecided voters to write me at slatepolitics@gmail.com to explain themselves and their situation. I got about 200 thoughtful responses. (I welcome more, though supplies are going fast.) The message to Romney was clear: run as a malleable moderate from Massachusetts who isn’t passionate about implementing a conservative social agenda, will promote a foreign policy that is not too different from President Obama's, and keep your distance from the Republican Congress. As the campaign comes to an end, Romney has fully embraced those first two pieces of advice, and by never really campaigning with GOP congressional leaders and recasting Paul Ryan, is doing a version of the third. 

For these undecided voters, this election is a referendum on Romney. They’ve mostly already made up their mind about the incumbent. They don't dislike President Obama, but they think he is either incapable of improving the economy or locked into a do-nothing phase with Congress. "I voted for Obama in 2008, much to the surprise of my family and some of my friends, but certainly not all. I was enthusiastic about his election, but 4 years later feel he has not lived up to the ‘hope and change’ he professed, and [he] has not been successful in working with Republicans to get things done," writes Linda from Ohio. "I don't hold him responsible for the current state of the economy. I know it’s not in his control, but I am concerned with his plans, or lack thereof, for growth going forward. He seems stuck.” (This message almost sounds like a planted Romney email it so closely mirrors his campaign’s spin, but as you'll see at the bottom of this story, Linda has some pretty harsh things to say about Romney, too.)

These voters think Romney can handle the economy, but they worry he will embrace an extreme agenda on social issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage. It's on those issues that they favor President Obama. The conundrum of one woman was typical: "I believe Obama, if elected, would be disastrous for the country, not only because of the debt he would cause the country to incur, but because of the precedents he would continue to set that make his initiatives very difficult to roll back in a future election. I believe Romney would be equally disastrous for different reasons. Republican positions are almost uniformly anti-woman, and as president, Romney would be in a position to name Supreme Court justices whose rulings will determine highly significant and personal issues not just for me but for my daughter. So, do I sell out my daughter’s legal rights for her economic future?"

If they're not worried about Romney, they're worried about his party. “Although the economy is certainly my No. 1 issue (I'm also unemployed),” writes Christine from California, “it isn't the only issue. If it were, I think I would vote for Romney. But when it comes to social issues, I find the Republican Party downright scary, and I am also opposed to their stance on immigration, which is also an important issue for me. On the other hand, while I am not convinced Obama even understands the economy, never mind will actually move things in the right direction, I do think he has a bit more empathy in general.” 


Romney's focus groups and polling have long told him a version of this. That's why Romney has fully implemented this strategy of recasting or—in some cases like abortion—rewriting his positions on a host of issues. The Boston Globe helpfully put together a list. At this point, liberals scream that the reshaping of Romney should disqualify him. He either can't be trusted—Obama's point on the stump—or he's just going to govern as a die-hard conservative once he gets in office. That points to a fundamental question for voters still considering whom to support. Will Romney aim to please his party’s conservatives once he's in office, the way he did during the primaries? Or, will he move to the middle, recognizing that's where the country is and where he'll need to be to get anything done in Washington? 

Romney's past flip-flopping doesn’t bother many of these people. For a sizable group, it gives them hope that a vote for his economic policies won't lead to an extreme conservative agenda. "I'm working under the assumption that the Senate stays blue, and that Mitt Romney has shown a willingness to pursue pragmatic rather than idealistic ends," writes Peter Bryan, an Obama 2008 Pennsylvania voter who is leaning toward Romney. He notes approvingly that Romney will be pragmatic because he "is the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, as we've learned so far." Some would like to see a little more shape-shifting from the candidate. "I would definitely vote for Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate," says Mary from Northern Virginia. "I am frightened by the risks of [the] Mitt who picked Paul Ryan ."

But they wouldn't be independents if they all saw things the same way. "Romney's willingness to transfigure himself into whatever people want to hear is very off-putting and gives me doubts about his character," writes Joe from Wisconsin. "I understand the need to be less than forthright—you tell people that you are going to touch their entitlements and they whip themselves into a frenzy. But a president with character should at least try to convince the mob rather than running with it. What if the mob is leading us off of an unknown cliff?"

For Grant, a lifelong Republican from West Virginia, he's thinking about voting for Romney because it might change the party from within. "I know the real Romney from his Olympics days, governorship days, and Bain days (before it became politically incorrect to make money on Wall Street). I never thought the GOP minders would let him come out and talk about his family,  religion, and practical—dare I say, moderate—approaches. The GOP Politburo has forced a VP candidate on him and also a narrow message. My vote is for the long view—assisting the GOP to cleanse itself of the "little tent" views .... I've been impressed that just before the debate, Romney took some initiative and broke away from the party line …. If he will keep showing he can do this, I'd consider voting for him."

A slight majority of those who responded are women. "I'm an undecided, under-25, female voter in one of Ohio's biggest swing counties," writes Lauren. "If any other man vied so hard for my affections as these two candidates, I'd have filed a criminal harassment report by August." Their views are complex and they're irritated by the way the candidates are talking about them. Jenelle Kirchoff is a pro-choice Catholic, but she is considering voting for Romney because "I am struggling with Obama's insistence that all entities mandate birth control coverage." Kirchoff is also the mother of seven, and though after her divorce she accepted limited government assistance, she thinks Obama is in favor of subsidies that are too generous. "My indecision is based solely on the fact that the Romney/Ryan platform has every intention of limiting access to safe abortions and affordable birth control through clinics like Planned Parenthood. And the Obama/Biden ticket doesn't seem to understand that welfare programs can and should be cut. I'm a single mother of seven. If I can live without government assistance, why can't everyone else?"

Ginger from Oregon has just moved very reluctantly to the Romney camp: "I am still sick to my stomach with what I did, but I voted for Romney. The economy has to be dealt with and he is, in my humble opinion, best qualified. I told my husband that if they start to repeal women’s health care choices I WAS going to use family money to go to Washington, DC and protest." Chris from Ohio and his wife went with Obama, barely: "My wife and I simply can't swallow a Republican in the White House who would support their point of view and potentially put two Supreme Court justices in place that would imprint even more misogyny into the federal government. It is maddening that we really have no rational options here and are forced to vote for a crony capitalist with no second term agenda and a deadly foreign policy program ... but what else can we do?" Scot in Denver voted for Obama, too: "We can vote early in Colorado, and I voted for Obama last Saturday. It was a close thing—about an hour before I went to the poll I was convinced I was voting for Romney. When it came time to pull the lever—well, touch the screen—I decided to remain optimistic. We'll see how that turns out."

These emails point out an important thing about undecided voters. They may be unclear on their candidate, but they have very clear views on certain issues. The number of voters who were weighing the question of Romney’s stance on social issues suggests they have clear inclinations. That is why the Obama campaign has tried so hard to keep Indiana senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock’s comments about rape and abortion in the news. If voters are balancing between Romney’s views on the economy and social issue overreach, the Obama campaign wants to keep them focused on the social-issue part of the equation.

My sample is not scientific. Political scientists tell us my respondents are not your typical undecided voters. In fact, according to Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, the undecided voters are the exact opposite of those who responded to my request. They are not that involved in politics, they’re not reading up on the issues—or any issue since they tend not to follow the news—they’re not sure that their vote will matter, or they’re sick of the whole business. “When I look at the data, what I see is that the majority of [undecided voters] have a hard time making sense of the political world,” says Vavreck. “The normal cues—party, ideology—that early voters use are like a foreign language to them.”

Both campaigns are courting these voters, but Vavreck says about 30 percent of registered voters who are undecided will stay home. Of course the largest group of undecided Americans is those who are undecided about voting, not undecided about whether to pick one candidate or the other. So just as campaign rallies only give you a sliver of the overall race, these voices aren’t representative of the entire undecided voter pool. 

But undecided voters have taken such a pounding—on Saturday Night Live and from people like Chris Matthews and Bill Maher—it seemed fitting to give them a chance to speak. I have reprinted more of their responses below. Many of these voters come from swing states, but a lot are frustrated that they don't live in swing states and believe their vote is wasted. Most are highly informed, which you'd expect from this kind of experiment. They are the opposite of "low information voters." They read too much and become more indecisive the more they read. When the campaigns and candidates pander to them without giving them what they want, they are left even more unsure. 

What do they want? A serious answer to their specific questions. They also want a political process that recognizes that the world is complex. "I face a serious crisis of values. Additionally, I am a conservative Christian, but I am wondering who really is pro-life: the candidate who believes abortion should be legal or the candidate who wants to maintain a system where people are denied life-saving health care services because they can't afford to pay?" An anonymous government worker in a swing state writes: "The notion that undecided voters are ‘low information’ voters rests on the belief that the party platforms are coherent and, accordingly, any rational person paying enough attention would naturally fall into one camp or another. But there is no natural affinity between a neo-con foreign policy, reactionary views on social policy, and laissez faire economic policies. Likewise, there is nothing particularly coherent to my mind in a platform of multilateralism abroad, liberalism with regard to social issues, and redistributionist tax policies." Bryan Sell describes himself this way: “I'm a 38-year-old undecided voter registered in Michigan who believes that humanity's greatest problems are largely rooted in binary thinking.”

Some voters want more than two choices and are voting for Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Though most admit they're throwing their vote away by voting for a third-party candidate, their commitment to their principles comes first. "I know as well as anyone that Johnson doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell. I am not delusional. That said, my vote is one of the purest ways for me to exercise my voice and my protest, and I am incredibly disappointed with Obama," writes Morgan Klein.

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at slatepolitics@gmail.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.