As elections go, this one could hardly be more straightforward. We have one of the most polarizing presidents in modern history. We have a country more culturally divided than, arguably, at any time since the Civil War. And we have candidates offering two radically different visions for the country's future. In this atmosphere, it's easy to think if someone can't decide who to vote for, it might be time to take their name off the voting rolls.
Bill Maher, for one, seems to agree. In characteristic Maher fashion, he took undecided voters to the woodshed on a recent episode of Real Time, telling viewers that if people can't make up their minds now, it's not because they're still weighing Obama and Romney's relative policy prescriptions, it's because they're morons. (Excuse me, "dipsh*ts.")
Statements like this might make for good television, but they do little to explain what's really happening.
It's currently estimated that around 5% of the electorate hasn't made their minds up in this election. But based on the work we've done to understand voter motivations, stupidity isn't the driving force behind this number. (Depressingly, that's a condition affecting certain voters of all political stripes.) Instead, the root cause seems to be something many of us should find a bit more understandable: a lack of trust in both of the candidates.
No matter your political allegiance, this shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Americans have never had less trust in institutions in general, and politics in particular. They don't trust corporations or the unions. They hate congress. They distrust just about anyone running for office. They're even losing faith in their religious institutions. It's no wonder a certain segment of the electorate can't find a candidate to believe in. (If you want a handle on how bad it's gotten, Gallup's Confidence in Institutions poll is a good/sad place to start.
In our ongoing research of political advertising and voter opinions with thousands of American voters across the country, we often hear the same story from undecided voters. They tell us that they like Obama and think he's a good guy, but don't think he's performed and don't trust him to handle the financial crisis. (Well, at least that's what the voters who don't think he's a radical Socialist or secret Muslim say.) They see Romney as an able businessman with a proven track record, but they find him borderline robotic and don't trust that he understands, or even cares, about average Americans.
In other words, there's a feeling among this segment of voters that the two major party candidates have major flaws -- flaws that would disqualify them in other races if it weren't for the flaws of their opponent.
If close political observers step back for a minute, it can be easy to see why. Obama has been wildly polarizing since taking office. While many on the left continue to support him, many in the center and on the right hold him in real contempt. His motivations and associations, real and imagined, have driven large numbers of Americans away from him. Combine this with the fact that Romney is almost completely devoid of charisma or anything resembling the human touch and emerged as the 'best of the worst' choice from what was widely considered one of the most unimpressive primary fields in recent memory, and it only stands to reason that a small sliver of voters feel there's nowhere to turn.
Unlike in past races, many undecided Americans understand there are real and substantive policy differences. The problem doesn't seem to be that these folks are all, in the words of Maher, "low information voters" - it's that based on the information they have, they don't have faith either candidates' policies will work out or that they'll even implement them.
Add to this the seemingly never-ending nature of the current campaign and many have grown weary. They've seen the headlines about candidates making blatant misstatements. They've seen the news coverage of campaigns engaging in personal attacks. It's chipped away at any good will they had for either camp. And, in the end, it's only further cemented their view that there's no good option.
Where the politically entrenched look at the candidates and see a simple choice, undecided voters are often undecided because they see no good choice at all.
Calling them out as rubes and idiots might make for good SNL skits and viral videos, but it ignores the facts.