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September 14, 2012

STAWAR: Are you still undecided?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Like many Americans, I spent the last couple of weeks watching the National Party Conventions on television. I’ve liked watching conventions ever since the 1964 Republican National Convention, when my favorite TV reporter, John Chancellor, was arrested for refusing to move from the convention floor to make room for the “Goldwater Girls” — supporters of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. As he was literally carried off by the police, he said, “I’ve been promised bail ... This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.”

This year, I listened to a lot of political speeches, but I was less tolerant of opinions with which I didn’t agree. At various times I was bored, inspired, amused, appalled and occasionally infuriated, but there was absolutely nothing in any of the speeches that had a shot at changing my thinking. I am what they call a decided voter and realize that my own pre-existing beliefs have a lot to do with how I judged the honesty and credibility of the speeches I heard.

According to the latest Gallup Poll, when it comes to this year’s presidential election, the number of undecided voters is still somewhere between 6 and 8 percent. This is about 3 or 4 percentage points less than the 2008 election at the same point in time.

To me, it is still remarkable that so many Americans haven’t made up their minds. These must be the same folks who start their Christmas shopping Christmas Eve. It’s frightening to think that the future of the republic is squarely in the hands of these indecisive individuals, who just can’t seem to make up their minds on what to believe.

Psychologist Drew Westen from Emory University found that undecided voters tend to lack strong ideological beliefs and are more pragmatic than the average voter. They typically are more interested in solutions to problems and don’t care about the source of the ideas. Undecided voters are also less likely to believe inaccurate or incomplete information than committed voters.

Maybe I’m just too impatient, but I think these undecided voters have had plenty of time to get all the facts. I think they like to wait to the last minute to decide what they want. They remind me of the Meg Ryan character in the movie “When Harry met Sally,” who takes an hour and a half just to order a sandwich.

But just where do our political ideas come from? Economists have long posited the notion of Homo economicus, the “economic of rational man,” whose political and economic decisions are based entirely on self-interest. This, however, breaks down pretty quickly when we see a lot of people at all ends of the economic spectrum voting precisely against their own economic interest.

Many sociologists see political beliefs as a matter of socialization or acculturation, with people absorbing the ideology of their parents or their peer group. When I was a child, I remember my father explaining to me why he voted the way he did. It all had to do with how he saw himself. Perhaps undecided voters just don’t identify as strongly with others or have a personal identity that contains little ideology.

Perhaps most fascinating is recent research which suggests there are consistent genetic differences between people with liberal and conservative ideologies. In 2005, the American Political Science Review published a twin study conducted by Rice University professor J. R. Alford and his colleagues. The study examined attitudes regarding 28 different political issues. Genetic factors accounted for over half (53 percent) of the variance in the opinion scores.

Studies have also shown that conservatives have a more intense fear response and react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, while liberals appear to be genetically predisposed to seek out novelty and new experiences. Social scientists continue to debate the relative contributions of heredity and environment to our political belief systems. Perhaps undecided voters constitute a third genetic type. There is little data to determine if the undecided voters of today were also undecided in past elections and will likely be the same in the future.

Also once an undecided voter makes a choice, will that influence their future choices? There is still much to learn about this group.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, now at the New York University, authored a recent book titled “The Righteous Mind,” which asserts that people’s political outlook is determined by six clusters of moral concerns — caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He found that self-identified liberals rely primarily on caring, followed by fairness and liberty.

Conservatives, however, tend to equally value all the clusters resulting in them being relatively less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims. On the other hand, they are more concerned about issues such as loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order) and sanctity (religion). It’s a fair bet that the more practical-minded undecided voters don’t get overexcited over these clusters.

Undecided voters are one of the main reasons for the increase in negative political advertisements this election season. The other big reason is the rise of outside groups such as Superpacs and all the money they have for advertising.

According to writer Emily Sohn  in Discovery News, 70 percent of political advertisements have been negative so far this year. She reports that negative ads have little effect on voter turnout and rarely change the minds of decided voters. Negative ads however, do seem to motivate some people to seek out more information regarding the issues, which could affect the decisions of undecided voters. In tight races with so few uncommitted voters, Wesleyan University political scientist, Erika Franklin Fowler, says, “advertising matters at the margins.”

Negative ads tend to stick with people better than positive ones. According to Joel Weinberger, a psychologist at Adelphi University, people are evolutionarily predisposed to pay more attention to negative information. Being attentive to potentially dangerous events is an obvious adaptive survival advantage.

In 2008, Weinberger and Westen reported that although undecided voters said that negative ads had no effect on them, they found that they had a significant longer reaction time to key words used in a negative campaign ad. Such reactions are strongly associated with unconscious emotional resonance.

Six months later, they found that the effect was still present. Weinberger believes the best way to counter negative advertisements is to immediately respond to them. Leaving them unanswered allows the negative messages to consolidate, whether they are true or not.

Although the Superpacs continue to hammer away, writing in Politico, reporter Reid Epstein believes that due to the barrage of early negative ads, there are actually even fewer undecided voters than the polls shows. He believes that instead of moving to the middle, both campaigns are now attempting to rally their bases, to maximize voter turnout. He thinks this is why the country is so polarized.

Greg Hass, the chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party in Ohio says, “The true undecided voters are the people who are undecided about whether they are going to participate.”

As I said before, I’m a decided voter. I still employ the same technique that has served me well ever since elementary school. I just copy off the nearest, smartest girl.

But if you’re one of that rare breed of undecided voters, just give us a call and my wife Diane will be happy to tell you how you should vote.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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