10/25/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

A Letter to the Undecided Voter

Dear Undecided:

I know what you're looking for today. Something that will help you make up your mind that is not about mudslinging or some trivial gaffe a candidate made, or a quote taken way out of context. I respect that you are still thinking about things, and looking for a bit of truth in a season of exaggerations and partisanship.

I spent some years training to be a political scientist. We're a strange bunch. We actually try to separate fact from fiction. And although most of us are partisan, we don't like the mudslinging, the 'gotcha" politics, or the trivial pursuit politics any more than you do.

It's hard trying to come to a decision about which candidate's policies are best for the country. It's easier if you have one big issue tugging at your sleeve, sometimes. But if you had a big issue like that, you probably wouldn't be undecided. So arguments about abortion, or gay rights, in either direction, are not going to do it for you.

The economy is an issue that is important to everybody, but the economy is incredibly confusing right now. It's absolutely true and easy to demonstrate to everybody, that the economy has just been through the biggest crisis in American history since the Great Depression. It's absolutely true that things are getting better slowly, although some purely partisan folks do not want to believe the facts. But I don't think you are a dedicated watcher of Fox News, or a dedicated listener to Rush Limbaugh; if you were, you would not be Undecided.

So the question you might want to think about is, which of these two candidates for President has the better plan to move the economy forward. But that's a confusing thing to wrap your arms around, because it is so, so easy to promise. And we know that Presidents cannot always keep their promises, and sometimes they make promises they know they cannot keep, just to get our vote.

I want to offer you another way of looking at this. Have you ever raised a child, or a puppy? The best way is through "positive reinforcement." You can get the behavior you want the next time, by rewarding the child, or the puppy, whenever they do something good. We get the behavior we reward, don't we? This is as true in politics as it is anywhere else.

Now, you might say to yourself, "I wish President Obama had done a better job making the economy grow faster." And most of us would agree with you. But if you vote based on that, to "give the other Party a chance," your vote will be rewarding some behavior I don't think that you approve of, behavior that's bad for our politics as a whole.

Because no matter how much we think we are voting for a person, a particular candidate's personality or background, as a political scientist I can assure you that you are also voting for a political party. Whichever party wins will claim that you voted to give your stamp of approval not just to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, but to a whole set of ideas. But even further; you will be rewarding behavior that you are likely to see again and again.

Here is the behavior pattern that keeps me up nights, not just as a partisan, but as a political scientist. When we have a presidential election in this country, the party that loses is supposed to give some cooperation to the party that wins. The idea is, the people have spoken. They have made their decision. This is the direction that the voters want. In 2000, the election was bitterly disputed. The Supreme Court had to step in. The Democrats won the vote nationwide, but they lost Florida by fewer than 600 votes, in a disputed recount. Angry Democrats could have banded together to oppose, on principle, every single thing President Bush wanted to achieve. They could have made it their only mission, to make President Bush a one-term President. But that's not what happened. Senator Ted Kennedy reached out to Bush, and together they passed the No Child Left Behind legislation. When Bush wanted to take the country to war against Iraq, on flimsy evidence that turned out to be wrong, many Democrats supported him to keep the country unified after 9-11.

But in 2008, when the Democrats won in an election that was not disputed, a big win in the popular vote and a huge win in the Electoral College, the Republican Party response was clear, and completely out in the open. The number one goal of the Republican Party became, not to seek some compromises, not to get some of their ideas into public policy through trying to influence lawmaking when they could, but to make Barack Obama "a one-term President." You can see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say this in public on You Tube.

And this is what happened, without dispute, without spin. This is history. The Republican Party, especially in the House of Representatives, agreed to block the President's plans with total unity. They had all pledged never to raise taxes, even on millionaires, for any reason, no matter how reasonable. Whatever the President proposed, even if he used Republican ideas ("Obamacare" is just "Romneycare" on a national level), was denounced as radical socialism. And they stuck to their guns.

After 2010, the President was blocked over and over again, by a one-two punch. The House went to a Republican majority in 2010, and they stood against even the ordinary votes that were needed to keep the government going, such as raising the debt ceiling. This was the most partisan Congress in the history of the House of Representatives. Never before had we seen routine votes turned into pure obstructionism. In the 2010 elections, moderate Republican senators such as the highly regarded Dick Lugar faced defeat simply because they had worked with Democrats in a bipartisan way. Moderate Republicans got the message, and either moved to become more partisan and less likely to reach across the aisle like Senator John McCain, or they announced their retirement, like Senator Olympia Snowe.

If you, Undecided, reward this behavior by giving them your vote, you may see it as a simple protest vote against a President who did not move as fast as you'd like to help us recover from the Great Recession. But trust me when I tell you, the Republican Party will not see your vote this way. They will see your vote as a reward for their strategy to be the most partisan Congress in history. They will see your vote as approving of the strategy that a new President from another party should receive no cooperation at all. Political parties, like puppies and children, repeat behaviors for which they have been rewarded.

If the Republicans lose the White House, they will know their strategy of obstruction did not work. And the bipartisan cooperation that you, Undecided, really want to see, will have a chance of making a comeback.

Something to think about. Talk about this with your friends and neighbors. I hope it helps you make your decision.