Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: Why the undecideds seem indecisive

October 13, 2012

Jennifer WagnerI’ll bet you’re not an undecided voter.

How do I know?

Because you’re reading this opinion piece in this political publication that resides within a larger publication that’s focused on a narrow set of issues.

In other words, you’re engaged.

As the campaign enters its final weeks, the search for the undecideds grows more intense, as if there’s a colony of lost voters marooned on an island somewhere waiting to be rescued with hours to spare before the polls close.

Are there really people out there who are so blissfully unaware of politics—the campaign ads, the debates, the social media updates, the mainstream earned media, the water cooler chatter—that they cannot form an opinion about which candidate they prefer over the other?

Obviously, the answer is yes, but the more important question is the $64,000 one: Who the heck are these people, and why don’t they care?

In mid-September, a focus group of undecided voters conducted for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that their feelings toward politics weren’t particularly flattering.

When participants were asked to describe how they felt about the presidential campaign, their answers included the following adjectives: removed, ambivalent, negative, very negative, confused and contentious.

Another poll that’s tracked undecided voters since January found that only 40 percent of respondents could identify John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Among undecideds, there are the voters who pay minimal attention to the political process but haven’t picked a side. Then there are the folks who don’t really follow the news and won’t make up their minds until the crush of coverage is so heavy that they can’t avoid tuning in and making a decision.

All told, these unknowing, tuned-out voters could be up to 8 percent of the electorate, enough to swing a swing state or two one direction or the other.

There are some in the media and elsewhere who’ve referred to this group as “apathetic” or “ignorant.” I’m less interested in labeling them than in figuring out why they’re so ambivalent.

It’s easy, as someone who loves and absorbs politics, to become lost in that vacuum.

And as someone who works on message development and delivery, the heart of campaigns and outreach both political and non-political, it’s easy to dissect the process from the inside.

But if you get out there and talk to voters who self-identify as undecided, you discover it’s often not the wrong message that keeps them at arm’s length from the process: It’s the process itself and the fact that they simply don’t have time to spend on politics.

When people say they’re tired of the acrimony in politics, it’s not just a sound bite on cable news. People are really, really tired of it.

The partisan bickering and constant back-and-forth is, quite frankly, exhausting.

The choice between watching talking heads yell at each other about health care or reading a story to my preschooler becomes easy.

So perhaps these undecided voters are less undecided than straight-up turned off, and perhaps we should try to fix that by focusing not on our differences but on the problems we can solve together.

I know that’s a strange idea coming from a decidedly decided voter who’s worked in the political field for half a dozen years, someone who knows full well the power of negative advertising and commentary.

But in a perfect world, if we could stop fixating on whether a voter has decided or not decided, we could start focusing on informing and engaging an electorate that cares about the process with more than a week to go.•

• Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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