Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Debates and Those Mysterious Undecideds

October 28th, 2008 · 4 Comments

I’d meant to write about this back around the time of the last debate, but I’m always puzzled by those little focus groups of the volk the networks put together to watch the presidential contenders spar. They invariably go around beforehand and ask these self-described undecided voters what they’re waiting to hear over the course of the debate, what might actually help these folks already awash in a glut of information make up their Hamletlike minds.

Now, there are a number of defensible answers that someone who’s reasonably sharp but maybe not hyperfocused on politics could give here. Which aspiring president seems more even-tempered and thoughtful? Who seems most decisive and secure in his convictions? Who appears to have a broad command of a range of issues? Who is quickest on his feet? Who has that ineffable quality that makes for a “presidential” demeanor?

But no; invariably these maddeningly crucial undecideds give some kind of policy criteria: “I really care about education, I want to see what they have to say about their plans for education reform.”

Now, in 1960, this might have been a defensible sort of thing to say. Maybe. In 2008, it’s just sort of ludicrous. Is there really anyone out there today who is profoundly concerned with educational policy, who will cast their vote on this basis, and cannot think of any better way to learn what the presidential candidates propose to do in this area than to wait to see what they say in the five minutes that might be allocated to the topic? If only (you imagine them lamenting) there were some kind of interconnected network of information, via which one could seek out more detailed policy proposals—perhaps by means of some kind of electronic engine for searching out such things.

You have to assume that these people are being a little disingenuous: They’re giving the answer that sober, intelligent people are supposed to give when asked how they’ll choose between the candidates, which is to say, a policy answer.  But as far as sussing out policy differences go, televisied debates are at this point utterly redundant, an anachronism. While ostensibly focused on these sorts of substantive arguments, their sole remaning utility is actually in revealing form. We pretend we watch to see what the candidates have to say. But we already know what the candidates have to say, if we care to know. The only good reason to watch is to see how they say it, to get a read on them as flesh-and-blood individuals under pressure.

Of course, the bien pensants are required to cluck their tongues at the way the media obsess over the optics and theatrics of these events, rather than focusing on the substance, dammit. But relative to the sort of detailed information available to anyone who wants it with a few mouse clicks, even the most substantive live debate is destined to be hopelessly insubstantial. The optics are the only sane reason to be paying any attention. But they’ve got to talk about something, so we’re required to pretend that the contents of their answers to the policy questions are somehow significant.

I say bugger it. If we’re just watching to see how they handle themselves under pressure anyway, actually throw them for a loop: Ask something they can’t possibly have prepped. Make them defend their pick for the best Beatles album, or solicit their view on whether Truman should’ve dropped the bomb, or pose them a Zen koan. Nobody who isn’t already voting for McCain gives a shit about Bill Ayers, but the undecideds might actually want to hear the case for Revolver over Sgt. Pepper’s—or to finally learn: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media · Sociology



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erstwhile // Oct 28, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Funny that you should choose Education as the policy area that the modal undecided voter might be exorcised over–that is my personal hobby horse. (But I’m not undecided.)

    While the internet is a great resource, I think you sidestep the true opacity that can exist when the candidates themselves are the source of their own information. Candidates are necessarily vague, in order to give themselves wiggle room in the future. Looking at their policy advisors provides problems, too. The Obama campaign is advised by both Andrew Rotherham and Linda Darling-Hammond, who hold diametrically opposed views on several very important issues. Which agenda will cash-out? Who knows?

    So yeah, policy positions aren’t opaque but they’re less transparent than one might imagine. (How much does Obama really want to redistribute?)

    Nit-picking aside, most undecided voters are just dumb.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Oct 28, 2008 at 10:30 am

    I picked education because it was the actual answer I remember one of them giving before the final debate. And while certainly they leave themselves wiggle room, I don’t think I’ve ever seen *greater* policy detail in a debate than one would get from a position paper — or even interviews with advisors who disagree on some points.

  • 3 Aaron Haspel // Oct 28, 2008 at 10:46 am

    This reminds me a great deal of Alex Tabarrok’s suggestion of a presidential game show. I endorse that, and this as well.

  • 4 Matt L // Oct 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm


    I’d pay money to see John McCain and Barack Obama kick the Revolver vs. Sgt. Peppers question around. That would be pretty sweet, especially if Dick Cavett was the moderator.

    Pay-per-view here we come.