Intuitive Swing Voters

The day before the election I ran into a woman from the neighborhood whom I had met once or twice. She ran up to me and agitatedly asked, “Help me decide who to vote for! I just don’t know!” We talked for about ten minutes and I explained that I thought that Dubya might end up being the worst President in U.S. history. She looked sort of like a Republican to me, but she accepted this amazingly well, and much to my surprise, after about ten minutes I apparently had convinced her.

Then, in the eleventh minute, I mentioned that I thought the Iraq War was in no way defensive, but was an aggressive war intended to secure oil supplies. Immediately I lost her, because it turned out that she was in favor of aggressive wars, and as it turned out, also in favor the collective punishment of all Iraqis (for killing our troops occupying their country).

I ended up having no idea why I had convinced her in the first place – I think that she blamed Bush for not winning the war quickly and easily enough. A few days after the election I saw her again and she gave me a black look. Why? Maybe because she had wanted to vote for a winner, and I had convinced her to vote for the loser Kerry. Or maybe she had ended up voting for Bush and had decided I was a Communist. I don’t really know.

This is the “undecided voter” being talked about here. Not the voter with split loyalties, or the centrist with sympathies with both sides (if any of these still exist any more), but the voter who desperately wants to vote right, but doesn’t have a clue as to what’s really at stake. The woman I was talking to was functional, very bright and quick, and apparently even rather prosperous, but from what she said she was terribly miseducated, and (as I knew from other things she’d said) she also had tendencies toward mania and paranoid delusion. But she voted.

What’s my point? A first point isn’t relevant to my neighborhood acquaintance, who was seemingly middle class. A lot of the voters in the story I linked to might have been reached by the kind of populist appeal that the Democratic Party has rejected for the last many election cycles. There are a lot of people who can’t see what their stake is in voting because, in fact, the Democrats have decided not to offer them anything real.

But my main point is the second one. This lady was going to pick her vote out of the air. We’re not talking about a careful deliberative process here. Whatever she happened to be thinking when she picked up her pencil would decide her vote. Probably the last person to talk to her would make up her mind for her. (I actually talked to someone once who carefully avoided all election-related information, because he wanted to vote “with an open mind”).

In the past I’ve described undecided voters of this kind as “fluff voters” or “whim voters”, but while I think that there are many who do vote in a blithe and silly way, the woman I talked to and the people interviewed in Wisconsin were actually agonizing about their votes. And the woman I was talking to wasn’t stupid, either; she was just miseducated, ill-informed, clueless, and emotionally incapable of dealing with thinking about politics.

So here’s my conclusion: if someone’s going to pick their vote out of the air, you want to have a lot of free media out there that reaches them without any effort on their part. You want Democratic talk radio, Democratic TV talk shows, a democratic TV network, and so on. These are not people who study the issues and read newsmagazines. This is a significant demographic, and the Republican operatives have been playing them masterfully. (For example, there used to be a rule that undecideds break for the challenger, but Rove is on top of of that kind of thing, and that didn’t happen in 2004. Democrats place too goddamn much confidence on “studies” that are really just straws in the wind. When Rove sees studies of that type, he asks what he can do to change their results next time).

When Air America came along, I heard an incredible amount of bad-mouthing from foo-foo liberals. “I’d never listen to something like that”. “It’s just preaching to the converted – it doesn’t change anyone’s minds”. “We need to be better than Rush Limbaugh, we can’t play that game”. And it wasn’t just talk – Air America had trouble getting funding, and at this point only covers about 40% of the country, IIRC.

The same thing happened with Michael Moore. A lot of liberals don’t like him, and our benevolent conservative friends are only too happy to advise us to dissociate ourselves from him. But Moore is able to beat the Republicans at their own game. He’s able to appeal to the clueless undecideds I’m talking about. There are a lot of voters who have no particular political point of view of their own, and vote on the basis of intuition and gut feelings. That’s not a demographic which can be won by facts and logic, but it’s a demographic which can be won by other means. We gotta do what we’ve gotta do.

Contrast The South. We’re always being told that Democrats have to compete in The South. But if you look at Southern public opinion, what Southerners want isn’t something Democrats can or should try to give (and the Great Plains and Northern Rockies are even worse). These states are the last place we should be looking for votes; they don’t like us. But there are about ten swing states elsewhere which could be won, and a more effective approach to the intuitive undecideds might be enough to pull that off.

Ambience is important. The ambient politics of the free media is right-wing or right-center. This is what you passively get when you switch on a TV or overhear someone’s radio playing. There’s really no liberal media out there; the so-called liberals on TV are either stooges and fall guys, or else centrists. We can’t afford to continue to allow the Republicans to dominate that space. When Air America went on the air here in Portland (already a fairly liberal town) it really changed the atmosphere. Suddenly, people would be hearing a liberal point of view by accident, and some of them started to believe that there actually were real liberals out there, and not just the black junkie prostitute welfare-mother Communist liberals Rush talks about all the time.

A high proportion of Americans (mostly in the Red States) never hear a liberal opinion, ever. For a lot of them, some form of cheesy conservatism becomes the automatic default position, even though they may never have thought about it for a minute. For these people, free liberal media (even if they never listened to it closely) would give liberalism a respectability, plausibility, and reality that it hadn’t had before.

So here’s my proposal, just for starters. Air America has to reach everyone. Buy one of those mile-high-antenna megawatt stations in Oklahoma – you can reach 15-20 states that way. Buy another one in Ohio. Start a national TV network. Put a liberal presence, for the first time in decades, everywhere in the US. Recruit 2 or 3 more Michael Moores. Find a liberal Limbaugh. We have to go after the people who don’t think much, because Rove does.

As I’ve said, it’ll only cost about half a billion – and hey, maybe if we shop carefully we can do it for half that. But if we don’t do this, we’ll continue to lose.

P.S. Our resident trolls will soon pop up to explain that this piece just shows that I — like all Democrats — don’t respect the American voter. Forget that. There’s a demographic that doesn’t decide exactly rationally, and like the Republicans, we have to go after that demographic too. Con men like Rove, Bush, and George Will always pretend to love and respect the people they’re skinning, but that’s their game. Behind the scenes their laughing their asses off.

Note: Blogger ate a version of this post after I’d spend 1/2 hour editing it. I’ve re-edited it now, but I’ve probably lost a little.