TCS Daily

Who Are These People?

By Stephen Green - September 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Oh, sure, you've got your single-issue voters who simply can't be swayed. Pro-lifers will either vote Republican, or stay at home. Folks who support gay marriage as their One Big Thing will do the same, only for the Democrats. Stridently against gun control? You're voting Republican. Think Big Oil is killing our children? You're a Democrat. Sure, there are exceptions. For example, I have no idea what a gun-toting, anti-abortion transsexual with a Gaia Complex does on Election Day, except maybe lie prone on the floor and quiver.

The issues of the day don't determine elections. The candidates do -- and they do it in two ways.

First, each candidate has to motivate his or her base. They do so by, at a minimum, paying lip-service to their single-issue voters' concerns. Ronald Reagan made his Evangelical friends happy by making some anti-abortion speeches and appointing some like-minded judges, yet 24 years later, Roe v Wade still stands. Bill Clinton said all the right things to labor organizations, yet fought for free trade. The base, it seems, can be pleased at a pretty small cost. Still, they must be pleased -- or they won't vote on the Big Day.

Second, each candidate must reach out to the broad middle of America, and convince us that he's the guy we agree with. Please note I did not say candidates need to change our minds. Simply put, that doesn't happen often enough to be significant. We're Americans: we know what we think is right, and no darn-fool politician is going to convince us otherwise. If King George III and his Hessian mercenaries couldn't make us pay a small tea tax, it's for sure no market-tested, blow-dried policy wonk can tell us what to think.

Each of us is already pretty sure where we stand. What we need to know is, where does the guy in the dark blue suit with the pleasingly unfashionable tie stand.

At this late stage in the game, there aren't many undecided voters left -- maybe 7%, according to Real Clear Politics poll averaging. But that small portion can still tip the election one way or the other. That's why, for all their tedious predictability, the presidential debates still matter.

Tech Central Station readers like you and me won't learn much from the debates. We'll watch them, if only to confirm our suspicions about the other guy, or to gain some fresh insight on some small issue we feel is important, or maybe just for the same kind of cheap entertainment value found in waltzing bears. For good or ill, we want to see the performance.

Well, guess what -- those are exactly the same things your average, undecided voter is tuning in to see.

They want to see the show, the spectacle, the sight of two great men - or, at least, men attempting greatness -- squaring off against one another in the highest-stakes reality program there is. Forget Donald Trump and his soon-to-be-patented "You're fired!" The American people are looking at two wartime apprentices and trying to figure out which one to hire. More importantly, they want a chance to figure out which man they most agree with -- or at least trust, what with our Current Mess, with their safety and their lives.

That's why, because of all their tedious predictability, I can't understand why the presidential debates still matter.

We won't see a debate. According to the 32-page, lawyer-prescribed rulebook, George Bush and John Kerry won't be allowed to talk to one another. The producers won't be allowed to show us the faces one candidate makes while the other one is speaking. We won't be allowed to see the warning lights which tell the candidates when they're out of time. Unless someone commits some horrible gaffe, we won't be allowed to see anything Bush and Kerry don't want us to see.

Some wit once described a conversation as a "series of unconnected monologues." He could have been describing what passes for debate amongst presidential contenders.

Americans have had four years now to get to know President Bush. We've had since he announced his candidacy nearly two years ago to take the measure of Senator Kerry. Altogether, that's six years of daily get-to-know-you time with two men most of us couldn't find much to talk about other than the weather, were they not already in positions of great power.

What does each candidate stand for? Bush stands for waging a proactive War on Terror, tax cuts, budget deficits, sometimes-discomforting religious issues, the "ownership society," and triangulating the Democrats on social welfare. John Kerry stands for the exact opposite, except when he doesn't. The great majority of Americans have known all this for quite some time. Undecided voters, apparently, don't know much at all.

All of which leaves the rest of us with just one unanswered question: Who are these undecided people, and why do they bother to vote?


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