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Focusing On Undecided Voters: Not A Very Swift Idea

August 25, 2004 [ Printer-friendly version ]

I've decided: I've had enough of the undecideds.

Thanks to a tidal wave of polls, focus groups, Powerpoint presentations, slideshows, studies and laboratory dissections, we now know more about undecided voters than we do about almost anyone else involved in the 2004 campaign - including the candidates themselves.

For instance, it turns out these irresolute souls are more likely to be white than black, female than male, married than single, and live in the suburbs rather than large cities. They are less likely to think that politics is relevant to their lives. They are likely to be younger and less educated than the general electorate - but older and more affluent than those who have committed to a candidate. Most will not make their decision until the week before the election.

And, perhaps most important of all, undecided voters love cartoons, talk shows, "CSI: Miami", and reality shows like "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor" (no word yet on whether they prefer Coke or Pepsi, boxers or briefs, Alien or Predator - but I'm sure that info is being tabulated by some highly paid polling company as we speak).

The problem is, this fixation with all things undecided is threatening to turn a campaign that should be about big ideas, big decisions and the very, very big differences between the worldviews of John Kerry and George Bush into a narrow trench war fought over ludicrous charges.

As a group, undecided voters long to be soothed and reassured. And the danger in playing to this fickle crowd is that the message is tailored not to offend rather than to challenge and inspire.

Witness Kerry on Iraq, President Bush's greatest political liability. "Before you go to battle," he said in his powerful and unambiguous convention statement, "you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent.'"

That is the right message on Iraq, and the one he should stick to. And if undecided voters find it too bold and unmodulated, tough luck.

The repugnant non-story of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is an irony-drenched exhibit A in the case against focusing on undecided voters. Consider: After being ardently wooed, courted, pursued and catered to by Team Kerry, a sizeable chunk of this capricious lot has taken the noxious bait being dangled by the anti-Kerry slime machine and swallowed it hook, line and stinker.

According to a new poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey, 46 percent of undecided and persuadable voters say they find the group's vile ads "very or somewhat believable".

Believable?! But then why are we surprised that the folks who are still on the fence nearly four years into one of the most disastrous and polarizing presidencies in American history find foaming-at-the-mouth accusations that John Kerry might have shot himself because it would look good on his resume "believable"?

The 2004 election is nothing less than a referendum on the soul of our country - a political event with unprecedented significance for our lives and the lives of our children. The Kerry campaign cannot allow it to devolve into a debate over whether John Kerry bled enough to warrant a Purple Heart.

And since no one can doubt that more scurrilous attacks are coming Kerry's way, it is imperative that in the future the right answers to all wrong questions be offered immediately. And not for one moment should they cause the Kerry campaign to relinquish its attacks on the president's failures at home and abroad or cloud its alternative moral vision of what America can be with George Bush safely back in Crawford.

This is all the more important since, sadly, the media will continue to make no distinctions in the volume and content of their coverage between true claims and false ones. According to the Annenberg study, nearly six in 10 people saw or heard the smears, despite a small ad buy in only three swing states - thanks to the obsessive, unfair and imbalanced media coverage, which gave greater play to the politically motivated lies of a few than to the official Navy records.

By reframing the discussion on his terms and not Karl Rove's, Kerry will not only inoculate himself against the next round of smears, he will also go a long way toward expanding the electorate by convincing unlikely voters - the 100 million eligible voters who didn't vote in 2000 - that this election, and their participation in it, would make a huge difference in their lives and the life of our country.

And, as an added bonus, he could free himself from the soul-sapping tyranny of trying to please and placate America's vacillating - and terminally unreliable - undecided voters.

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