With just five weeks to go before election day and Obama barely edging out McCain in national polls, the undecided voters have become the true celebrities of the campaign, stars of their own reality show that runs episodes after every major campaign event.
The most recent episode of the Undecided Show ran on Fox News after the first presidential debate, hosted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz in the role of Phil Donahue, broadcast live "from the fabulous Diamond Resort's Polo Towers here in Las Vegas."
The first thing Luntz had to do of course was establish everyone's eligibility to participate in the game:
"We took tremendous care on who we recruited for this. We wanted people who were absolutely undecided. Show of hands: how many of you walked in here undecided?"
All the contestants eagerly raised their hands, laying claim to their undecidedness, their ticket to fame, however fleeting. This particular group had got lucky in the Undecided Show: they had won an invitation to a Vegas casino to watch the debate, and then a prime time appearance on Fox News. But now they were facing the classic quandary on which the dramatic narratives of TV games shows are based: having come so far, would they cash out their prize now, or risk it for something even bigger.
The middle-aged lady in pink was the first to cash out, eagerly responding to Luntz's Question #1: "Why did Obama move you?"
A: "He seemed to know what he was doing, he cared about the average person and he got to me."
Paula was cashing out too:
A: "He seemed to care about everyone in America. He didn't stutter."
Thus spoke the Undecided.
Paula and the lady in pink did pretty well. They won a casino visit, a live appearance on Fox, and a YouTube video they can show to neighbors and grandkids. But they also removed themselves from the running for the next show and the one after that. They are no longer in contention for grand prize of Last Undecided Voter in America.
Luntz's methods have come under some harsh scrutiny. Last January the Ron Paul campaign posted a video on YouTube showing that Luntz had the same man on two of his shows following primary debates, claiming that Luntz was guilty of "Focus Group Fraud."
But really, what was fraudulent? The man in question had been offered a starring role in the Undecided Show, and he was clearly enjoying playing the part. And he played well, with two consecutive appearances.
As nearly every candidate now must repeat ad naseum before cheering supporters, "This campaign is not about me, it is about you." This is the casting call for the Undecided Show. Me? Really? About me? Little ol' me? [blush] But I couldn't. Well, maybe. What is it I need to do?
So here is a proposal for how the campaigns can change those undecided voters into committed ones. I know that consultants would normally get paid 6-figure fees for advice like this, but out of sheer civic duty I am offering this advice free of charge, and in a non-partisan spirit.
Problem: the way the Undecided Show is currently set up, the game offers too much incentive for the players to hoard their chips until the very end.
Solution: the campaigns should offer an alternative show, the I Decided Show, in which the undecided are offered a few minutes of fame if they declare their decision for a candidate on camera. They would get a moment to craft their narrative: talk about their parents or their kids, and whatever combination of problems is making them feel like a victim. You know, the usual stuff. And then the "money shot," when they "come out" for candidate x.
It is simple really: offer greater celebrity to the recently decided than the undecided. Because it is all about us, right. Unless of course you are named John McCain or Barack Obama, in which case this really has nothing to do with you.
Oh, one more thing. John: lose the stutter. I know, I know, you didn't actually stutter. But you gave the impression of stuttering, which is the same thing. But your high-priced consultants have probably already gone over that with you...