Former Kerry Staffer Remains Undecided

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.

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8 Responses to Former Kerry Staffer Remains Undecided

  1. YvonneCa says:

    I can relate. 🙂 I think, for me, in 2004 AND now, my indecision is about the criteria I value in a president (not a candidate): experience AND electability.

    Experience is important to me because our world is in such crisis…we have to elect a leader who knows what to do to turn things around.

    Electability (not likability) is IMHO how I view the electorate. I was for Kerry in 2004, but worried that the electorate would (unfairly) bring up VietNam and use it. In 2008, I also worry that each of our current candidates has an ‘Achilles heel’ that will be used against him/her.

    So, for 2008, Obama is not my first choice on both the experience and the alleged drug use issue. Clinton, who I believe has experience, is not my first choice because she will stir the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ again. And Edwards, also not my first choice, is also low on experience.

    I’m undecided because none of the current Democratic candidates measures up to my criteria. I will vote for a Democrat, but not the BEST Democrat. That makes me sad.

    I also have to say, any one of them will make a better President than we’ve seen in a long time.

  2. alrudder says:

    Chuck Todd on MSNBC, who is one of my favorite pundits, said that the mood of the country changes, and Barack Obama is to be credited for sensing that the country was ready for him. He said in 2008 they want full change, in 2004 they wanted some change with experience. Furthermore Todd says that in 2007 HRC ran the campaign that our beloved John Kerry should have run in 2004. That might have been her time, even tho she would have been criticized (like Obama) for not waiting her turn.

    It’s as if the country is playing cards every four years. Either keep your hand, pull a new hand from the same deck, or re-shuffle the deck. Unfortunately for HRC, the mood is the third option.

  3. YvonneCa says:

    alrudder

    Thanks for that view from Chuck Todd. I (who know nothing about politics 🙂 ) disagree with most of what he said, but it is an interesting take.

    You said, “It’s as if the country is playing cards every four years. Either keep your hand, pull a new hand from the same deck, or re-shuffle the deck. ”

    I think this is more the problem than the mood of the country. Choosing the leader of the free world has been reduced to a game…and the electorate are so busy multi-tasking ( watching TV, family responsibilities, working harder to keep pace with a bad ecomony, etc.) that they are playing without even really looking at their cards. No one can win that game. 🙁

  4. alrudder says:

    YvonneCa,
    I communicated the idea in the form of a game metaphor, but it is not necessarily a game. TIMING the mood of the country is important.
    I assume you are a fellow Californian. Our absentee ballots are mailed out tomorrow. If the Iowa Caucus had been on the 13th as originally scheduled, the Clinton campaign was hoping to bank thousands of absentee votes here while she still was perceived as the front-runner. But the TIMING got changed.

  5. YvonneCa says:

    alrudder

    I agree that timing is an important skill for politics and politicians. But it’s all in the perspective:

    Politicians, like Clinton, have to anticipate things like the mood of the electorate and time their decisions to take advantage and be successful. Some are better at that than others.

    The American people, the electorate, care little about these things…they are the ones (many, not all) who often view this process as a game IMHO. I think that is a fault they have, not to take citizenship more seriously.

    The outcome of any given election is a result of both factors…what the politician does and the participation (or lack thereof) of the electorate. We got Bush because of his timing, etc., but also because the electorate was lazy.

    Who has better timing as a politician? Obama, Clinton, Edwards…hard to say.

    For me the question is : How serious will the electorate be this time? Will they stop what they are doing long enough to focus and ‘play the game’ well?

    The person we elect as President will be a result of BOTH factors.

  6. BlueWashington says:

    Hello there,

    It’s been a while since I’ve been through here, but I got a moment and thought I’d share my thoughts.

    I’m a Kerry guy from back in ’04. So when JK decided not to run this year I had to look look for another Dem to settle on. It took a long time, but I’ve settled on my ‘horse’ – it’s Obama. I think he (Obama) has the intellect, the insight and the knowledge – toss in some charisma – to do the job. I can feel good about voting for this guy.

    Bottom line, I gotta feel good about supporting a candidate. With Dodd being thinned out in Iowa (I had been thinking about Dodd, too), I’m running with Barack (but JK is still my guy in the long run).

  7. Indie Liberal says:

    alrudder Said: on January 6th, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Chuck Todd on MSNBC, who is one of my favorite pundits, said that the mood of the country changes, and Barack Obama is to be credited for sensing that the country was ready for him. He said in 2008 they want full change, in 2004 they wanted some change with experience. Furthermore Todd says that in 2007 HRC ran the campaign that our beloved John Kerry should have run in 2004. That might have been her time, even tho she would have been criticized (like Obama) for not waiting her turn.

    Wow! I just love it when people second guess Kerry and his campaign, and bash him just to promote Hil, Obama, Edwards, or Richardson. No, the campaign wasn’t perfect, but the good senator does not deserve the constant bashing and elevating other Dems at his expense.

    I am sorry, I do plan to vote for a candidate and the nominee, but the game that the lefty blogosphere is playing by throwing Kerry under the bus, belittling him and his campaign, and throwing insults, while lifting others up is a big turn off for me.

    It’s a bullying tactic that only helps the GOP. It’s not suprising that the ones (blogospherians, pundits) that bashed the senator in 04 are supporting this field with so much glee than last. I know the criticism won’t stop there, but it’s why I have thought about taking a break from politics and blogging.

    I know the main priority is to put a dem in the WH, but as I said, these Rovian tactic that the lefty blogosphere, isn’t swaying me into voting for a candidate.

    Oh, Nice blog Pam!

  8. YvonneCa

    This says it all: “No one can win that game.”

    So many factors changed around this time out, worse than the last election. Why they messed with the schedule is beyond me. Everyone is running ragged to keep up and it just makes it so hard for the people to really get a chance to make informed choices. What a mess we have. I’d really like to see this play out a little longer and let the voters decide instead of the damn pundits!