St. Louis, Missouri--The third presidential debate has just ended, and the 36 undecided voters gathered at the studios of ketc Channel 9 are ready for their close-ups. These undecideds--twelve leaning toward Al Gore, twelve toward George W. Bush, and twelve staunchly neutral--have been invited by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and msnbc to give their verdicts (broadcast live across America) on the two candidates' performances. Before the cameras start rolling, Luntz does some last-minute pre-interviewing. Yeshai Gibli, an account executive who went into the debate leaning Gore, is among the first to venture his thoughts. "In the beginning," Gibli tells Luntz, "I thought Gore would be more liberal" on the death penalty. Similarly, on the issue of censorship, Gibli remarks, " Gore wasn't far enough to the left as he might be." So has Gore's centrism transformed Gibli into a fledgling Naderite? Not exactly. As Gibli tells Luntz, Gore's insufficient leftism has turned him into a Bush man.
And, within the ranks of undecided voters, Gibli is one of the smart ones. " The very fact that the focus-group participants volunteer makes them very abnormal," explains Ken Warren, a pollster and political science professor at St. Louis University. "They are much more confident, much more informed" than your run-of-the-mill undecided voter. "Most undecided voters aren't watching these debates," says Michael Haselswerdt, head of the political science department at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. "To think that somebody who's really undecided at this point is spending an hour and a half on a nice fall evening to watch this--that's crazy."
But that hasn't stopped the media, the political consultants, and the candidates themselves from fetishizing wafflers into the biggest story of this election. Call them what you will--undecideds, uncommitteds, independents, swing voters--the folks who haven't yet made up their minds about how to vote on November 7 are the true bigwigs in this contest. The media treats them as if they were the oracle of Delphi. "Joining us now from Warren, Michigan, outside Detroit, our Wolf Blitzer is there with a group of undecided voters," chirped CNN's Judy Woodruff after the St. Louis debate. " Wolf, we're dying to hear what they have to say." In the aftermath of the second debate, at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, National Journal's Hotline ran words of wisdom from wafflers in focus groups throughout 21 states. Even the candidates celebrate indecisiveness as a virtue. "I can't think of a better place to have a good discussion about the future of the economy," Bush gushed upon his arrival in St. Louis. "After all, Missouri's what they call a swing state. It's a state where there's a lot of independent-minded people, a lot of people who want the measure of the man running."
No, they don't. These supposed supercitizens are actually the least- informed, least-politically-savvy, least-rational voters around. It's not that undecideds are inherently less intelligent than other voters--although surveys show they generally have lower levels of education, income, and political involvement. They're just totally clueless. Forget trying to explain to these people the differences between Bush's and Gore's Medicare plans: "When it comes to politics, undecided voters don't know anything," snorts Haselswerdt. "And they're not going to pay attention long enough to learn anything." Study after study confirms that your average waffler either doesn't understand or doesn't much care about our political system and thus winds up voting for whichever candidate gives her that warm and fuzzy feeling in the tummy. But that hasn't stopped political watchers from trailing around after these clueless hordes with their microphones and pencils poised, lapping up the wafflers' every incoherent, contradictory, and flat-out stupid statement as if they were transcribing the deep wisdom of the American soul.
There are a variety of reasons people tell pollsters they remain undecided at this late date. Some, for instance, feel their vote is a private matter, not to be shared with professional pulse-takers. Others--usually members of the upper middle class and predominantly women, according to Luntz--may be paying attention to the race but are conflicted about the candidates and their positions. For instance, says Warren, many traditionally Democratic union voters hate Gore for backing nafta and permanent normal trading relations with China.
But the bulk of undecideds are folks--again, mostly women--on the lower end of the socioeconomic and education scale. In general, they are completely uninterested in or outright disgusted with politics. "They don't follow politics at all and think ill of all candidates," says Luntz. Indeed, many of them won't even bother to go to the polls. "My experience with every election is that undecideds vote at lower rates than people with greater conviction," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. Adds Warren: "They are the least committed to the system, the most apathetic, and the most uninterested in politics. That's exactly why they're not informed enough to have made a decision."
But most wafflers know it's not good form to tell pollsters that they couldn't care less about the campaign and are planning to spend Election Day watching reruns of "Matlock." So they almost invariably say they're looking for "more information." Before the Wake Forest debate, Lida Hayes, one of 30 focus groupies organized by Speakout.com and Fox News, said she was anxiously "waiting for more information" on the issues before making her pick. But when pushed on which issues, Hayes drew a complete blank. "I just want somebody to take a stand," she finally asserted with great intensity. I want at least one of them to stop going "back and forth" and to "get out of the gray area."
In fact, if the undecideds are paying attention at all, they're not looking for a fleshed-out explanation of the voucher mechanism in Bush's prescription- drug plan; they're trying to figure out which candidate is "the best person." When Luntz asked St. Louis focus groupie Walter Bettey why he thought Bush won the first two debates, Bettey noted that Bush came across as "just a regular guy. It's like you can relate to him. He's not a politician." Similarly, focus groupies at the Wake Forest matchup generally led off by saying they were concerned about issues, only to start rambling about which candidate is more "honest" or "straightforward" and which has stronger " character" or "morals" or "backbone." In recalling the first debate, for instance, groupie Patricia Thorne (among others) dwelled on mannerisms and personality tics. "Gore, when speaking, tended to grimace," grimaced Thorne. " On the other hand, Bush looked too intense" when speaking. (Bush more intense than Gore? What debate was this woman watching?)
Of course, there may be another reason wafflers waffle: It makes them feel superior. Indeed, wafflers wear their undecided status like a badge of thoughtfulness. "I think it's sad that these people decided so early when they haven't seen the issues" laid out side by side in the debates, said Wake Forest groupie Rachel Mortick, a freshman at the university. (Of course, after the debate, Mortick claimed to have been won over by Bush's Social Security plan for the younger generation--which, I pointed out, he had barely mentioned that evening. "I know," she said with a sweet shrug and a smile.) " It's culturally preferential--except in Hollywood--to be not aligned," says Luntz, "because that suggests that you're smarter. It suggests you're an independent thinker. People say this to me--I get this all the time--'I don't vote based on party, I vote based on the candidate.'" Of course, says Luntz, if you ask them to run through their past voting records, oftentimes they're 90 percent Republican or 90 percent Democrat. "But society has taught them that independent thought is a good thing, not a bad thing."
With that sort of reinforcement, it's not surprising wafflers let their exalted indecision go to their heads. Indeed, before Luntz's third and final post-debate show begins, his 36 undecideds are downright blase about their pending national TV appearance. Having stuffed themselves with Chex mix, cookies, and soda during the ten-minute break, they wander back into the studio and plop down in their chairs. The studio lights come on full blast, nearly blinding me as I stand off to one side, watching the group. But the participants sit blinking in the whiteness, smiling expectantly, chattering casually among themselves. No one seems concerned about making a fool of themselves or saying the wrong thing. And why should they? These people, after all, have their fingers on the pulse of the nation.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.