Seriously, Who Are These Undecided Voters?

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Jon Gilbert Fox / Getty

You can make fun of them. You can call them contemptible, stupid and even racist if you like.

But I'd like to offer a few words in defense of the undecided voter, if only because she — about 63% of this year's undecideds are women, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press — is entirely uninfected by that great enemy of deliberative democracy: wild-eyed enthusiasm. Unlike the freakishly devoted Obama acolytes and those rabid, occasionally obscenity-shouting McCain-Palin fans, the undecided voter is taking her time. She's also one of the few Americans whose vote this year could actually be decisive, since some polls in swing states like Florida and Missouri show the undecided bloc to be larger than either candidate's lead.

And yet, an obvious question: Who could possibly be undecided at this point? McCain and Obama have been running for President for nearly two years. For those of us who follow politics, it's difficult to imagine that, at this late date, a voter could learn anything dispositive about these two men. In fact, we know them a little too well. We know that Obama has a thing for nicotine and that McCain acted like a cad with his first wife. We know the Senators' tics and mannerisms, their preferred methods of verbal indirection, their expressions when they're angry or surprised or bored. I have hooked up with people I know less about.

So who can't decide between them? The Pew report has the best data on this year's crop of the unresolved. The national survey of 1,325 registered voters, conducted Oct. 23-26, found that when asked which candidate they preferred, 6.2% answered "don't know" or "either." These voters tend to be older than most, and they have less education. They also make less money, which suggests they have less time to pay attention to politics; only 37% of the undecideds told Pew they were "following election news very closely," compared with 55.5% of McCain or Obama supporters.

From this demographic picture, political junkies may snort in condescension about undecideds. But they should remember that some people have a real life, one not spent constantly refreshing the polling averages on On Friday, the Los Angeles Times' Faye Fiore wrote movingly about one undecided voter, 63-year-old Regina Hansley of Philo, Ohio:

Her husband recently died of a terminal illness, and the medical bills are staggering. She lost her job as a respiratory therapist. Her children served in the military, and she wants the troops to come home. She usually votes Democratic, which might point her to Obama, but doesn't.

"It's not race, I'll tell you that," she offered after a long pause.

"I'm angry and I'm tired, and I just don't feel it's right that people are losing their jobs and their homes. I don't trust either one. I really truly don't know who I will vote for."

University of Wisconsin political-science professor Charles Franklin has crunched early-October tracking-poll data and found that Regina Hansley is pretty typical. Undecided voters are no more likely to express questionable attitudes about African Americans than are the public as a whole. He did find, however, that undecided voters are more likely to be predicted as McCain voters than are the general population; 50% of undecideds will likely go for McCain, compared with the 36% of decided voters who say they will pull the lever for the Republican.

How can you predict the votes of the undecided? It's actually not that hard. Our brains generate automatic responses to most stimuli. As the psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote compellingly in 1980, "We do not just a see 'a house.' We see a 'handsome' house, an 'ugly' house, or a 'pretentious' house ... We sometimes delude ourselves that we proceed in a rational manner and weigh all the pros and cons of the various alternatives. But this is probably seldom the actual case. Quite often 'I decided in favor of X' is no more than 'I like X.'" Most of us pick what we like, Zajonc said, and then we justify it later.

We should respect undecided voters because they are trying hard to weigh the pros and cons and not be swayed by automatic, emotional responses. In the end, most of them will go with their guts — psychologists have shown that even those voters who at the explicit and conscious level deny any preference for a candidate usually have unconscious attitudes that predict how they will vote. But those who can wait until just days before a major election and still consciously describe themselves as undecided — that's an act of deliberative democratic will. At least, that's how I choose to see it.

You may see a failure to make up one's mind between two clearly differentiated candidates as an act of ignorance or dishonesty. Some voters may pretend to be undecided just so they can seem unbiased and high-minded. I asked the psychologist Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada, Reno, a former president of the highly regarded professional group now known as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, about what's really going through the minds of the undecided. He told me in an e-mail that people often delay making a decision when "the consequences [of that decision] could be severely negative for either side of a choice." A textbook example: Do you choose death by fire or death by hanging? Most humans will delay that choice as long as possible, because we're not sure which method will be more excruciating.

The choice for President isn't like that: your life isn't at stake, at least not directly. But people who have a disposition toward indecision have a harder time reading how much risk is really involved in any particular choice, according to Hayes. They badly want to make the right choice; they strongly fear the emotional consequences of the wrong one. Hayes says these people are "anxious and worried," but, he adds, "to some degree, that comes from their caring and wanting to get it right ... Looked at in this way, perhaps it is O.K. to be in a situation in which undecided voters in the last week often make the choice for us all."

In short, we should give the undecided voter a break. She's busy. She's not a political person. And she cares a lot about making the right selection.

See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.

See pictures of John McCain's final push on the campaign trail.

See pictures of voting machines.