“Decisions, Decisions.” In this election it seems that many voters can’t make up their minds. They are not alone explains Meredith Chaiken. Chaiken was was Sen. John F. Kerry’s deputy political director in New Hampshire during the 2004 primary and is a senior analyst with the Mellman Group polling and consulting firm.
Chaiken takes a look back at Kerry ’04 as she explains her indecision:
In 2003, I spent eight months in New Hampshire with the John Kerry campaign. New Hampshire cherishes its privileged voting status, so Granite Staters gleefully fill their calendars with kaffeeklatches and town hall meetings. They watch campaign ads – on purpose! And yet, well into December of that year, many voters still hadn’t picked their man.
I couldn’t fathom how people could be so saturated with political information and still not know how they were going to vote.
But now, even after the Iowa caucuses and with the New Hampshire primary just two days away, I find myself struggling to decide which Democratic candidate to support. Since I’m a D.C. resident, this has nearly no electoral significance. But since I’m a former campaign staffer and now a professional pollster, it has had an intense psychological impact. I’m tormented! How could this be? I’ve built my career on persuading others to support a certain candidate, and here I can’t even convince myself. It’s January in possibly the longest and most heavily covered campaign season in history. Why can’t I make up my mind?
Of course, I’m not alone. According to a December Washington Post-ABC News poll, 51 percent of those expected to vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and 61 percent of those expected to vote in the Republican primary said that they may well switch candidates before Election Day. Talking Points Memo headlined a poll analysis post ” ‘Undecided’ Running Away With South Carolina Dem Race.”
Political scientists tend to explain the undecided-voter phenomenon by noting that undecideds are typically less partisan, less activist and less informed than other voters. When they ultimately make their choice, the thinking goes, they take their cues from more informed political elites. But this doesn’t explain those information-saturated undecideds in New Hampshire. It doesn’t help explain me, a veritable poster child for political elites.
I’m reluctant to blame the campaigns for my predicament (and not just because I travel in their world). With a dozen debates, millions spent on advertising and hundreds of rallies and meet-ups, these campaigns have made an honest effort to communicate with voters and engage supporters. And I know that even when people are given all the right information, some still have trouble making up their minds.
I saw this in 2004 in New Hampshire, where we talked to environmentalists about Kerry’s record on global warming, teachers about his votes on early-childhood education and veterans about his military service. Even after we’d answered all their questions, some voters remained uncertain. Similarly, in focus groups, we’d spend two solid hours going over the candidates’ backgrounds and their positions. We’d discuss the concerns and values and character traits that underlie a race. And still, there were always some participants who walked away saying that they wanted to do more “research” before making a choice.
Only now am I starting to understand their hesitation.
It’s a tough call for some trying to choose between the frontrunners in this election. As Chaiken notes, “Today, instead of analyzing the differences between the Democratic candidates and a Republican incumbent, Democrats are looking at the differences within our party, and the differences are largely in the area of leadership.”
I don’t yet know whether I prefer a leader who will advance change incrementally or go for sweeping upheaval; someone who will speak for those without advocates or for everyone. Or perhaps there’s something else that separates the candidates that I’m still missing entirely.
In New Hampshire in 2004, I told voters the same things in January that I’d told them the previous June – Kerry’s record and his personal story didn’t change. But in Iowa, and then in New Hampshire, the undecideds shifted suddenly and dramatically, with support coalescing around our campaign.
The current presidential candidates aren’t likely to change over the next few weeks, either. But the electorate – for whatever reason – will.
And that, I fervently hope, includes me.