Professional partisans’ anxiety about undecided voters is reaching epidemic proportions, with accusations that undecideds are ignorant and suggestions that they should not vote. This frustration is understandable, but it amounts to a discomfort with democracy.
The parties and their pundits have been thrilled with the vision of a polarized America where candidates offering “a choice, not an echo” divide the country into equally sized competing camps. This makes for good combat, good coverage, and more predictable political math — but for bad political dialogue and a decaying democracy.
As a nation, we want voters who don’t automatically identify with a single party on every issue, who reserve the right to make up their own minds by examining candidates’ stands on the issues and the campaign tactics they deploy, and who finally balance their priorities in making a choice. This is a thoughtful and informed voter, not an ignorant undecided. And unhappily for the ideological button-wearers on both sides, such voters will ultimately decide the winner of this election.
The fact is that only 14 percent of the electorate claim to always support the candidate of a single party — and the growth of independents far outpaces new Democratic or Republican registrants. In recent elections, 50 percent of American voters identify themselves as moderates, compared to 29 percent who call themselves conservative and 20 percent who describe themselves as simply liberal.
Another indication of the American electorate’s political diversity is that all five of the states that voted for Al Gore by the largest margins now have Republican governors. And these governors are not representatives of the far-right wing, but centrists who are fiscally conservative and tough on crime but liberal to moderate on many social issues — pro-choice, pro-gay rights or in favor of expanding stem cell research. Because their stands stretch across the political spectrum, they are broadly popular — California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoys 65 percent approval ratings in a state that has recently been hostile to Republicans, and now President Bush has called on Schwarzenegger to help sway undecided voters in the final days of the campaign.
Bush and Kerry understand how to use the style of centrism — both their conventions were textbook in this regard — but neither has shown a consistent determination to implement the substance of centrism in office. Consequently independent and centrist voters must decide who to cast their vote for despite imperfect identification with candidates who have not consistently reached out across party lines to win them over. If John McCain had been on the ballot I don’t think you would see this level of angst among independents and centrists. Instead, many voters are motivated by negative opposition rather than positive identification — the strident and somewhat hysterical “anybody but Bush” voices, or those whose blood runs cold at the thought of a man they see as a disloyal and self-wounding swift boat veteran occupying the White House.
And in the first election after 9/11, the war on terror is an overwhelming factor. Because Democrats often seemed asleep at the wheel during the second half of the Cold War, there is a residual reluctance on the part of many voters to trust them with life-and-death foreign policy decisions. This includes some Democrats — the so-called “9/11 Democrats” — who recognize that the war on terror is the most important issue facing the nation and despite deep disagreement with Bush on domestic issues might still find themselves pulling the lever for the president because there hasn’t been an attack on American soil since 9/11. Fiscal conservatives who have been appalled at the president’s squandering of the surplus and a rate of spending higher than that of Lyndon Johnson have been tempted to bolt, but may return to the Republican fold despite the Clinton administration’s record of relative fiscal responsibility.
There are undecideds still left in this election, because neither party offers a compelling candidate who has consistently reached out to the vital center of the electorate. President Bush has failed in the role of a “Uniter, Not a Divider”, he promised to play in his first campaign. After losing the popular vote, he did not win over the moderate edge of the opposition, and as a result this election is far closer than it should be for a Republican incumbent during wartime. The president’s responsibilities over the next four years will be far-ranging — winning the war on terror, making America less isolated in the world, dealing with a nuclear Iran and North Korea, appointing what looks likely to be at least three Supreme Court justices, and getting America’s fiscal house and entitlements in order so we can digest the retirement of the baby boom generation without going bankrupt. These are not simple tasks, and they do not lend themselves to simple answers. Voters who take their time balancing the question of who would best meet these responsibilities — by reading policy stands and watching the debates — are far more responsible voters than those who made up their mind nine months ago on the basis of pre-existing prejudices and bumper-sticker slogans. This weekend, however, marks the point where all the data is in. Even for the thoughtful undecided, now is the time to make your decision and vote your conscience.
John P. Avlon is a columnist at the New York Sun and the author of Independent Nation: How the Vital Center Is Changing American Politics. He was formerly the chief speechwriter and deputy communications director for Mayor Giuliani.