The percentage of the electorate that has not yet decided on whom to support for president – estimated at around 12% by recent NBC/WSJ and Washington Post-ABC polls – are pragmatic centrists not given to stanch political ideology. They do not hold deep beliefs about whether government should be big or small, on which economic model is most prosperous, or whether social constructs should be conservative or progressive.
For them, the one thing that makes them an undecided voter – instead of an undecided bystander – is an abiding duty to preserve the America where opportunity and the pursuit of happiness is a birthright. Policies and rhetoric do not negate the American birthright, and thus, to the undecided, the candidates’ platforms are less important than their ability to inspire and comfort.
This explains the wild swings in the polling following the national conventions, the since-retracted Romney remarks about the 47% do-nothings, and the overwhelming perception that President Obama lost the first debate. Real Clear Politics national poll averages show support for the president increasing to a four point lead after the Democratic National Convention and Romney’s remarks, and then changing course to a Romney 1.5 point lead after the debate. Six point swings are affairs of the heart, not the mind.
Voters who know who they want for President are not swayed by emotional oratory, criticisms of the tax base, or the theater of Presidential debates. This poll volatility is courtesy of the undecided voter. They like the September Obama and, so far, the October Romney. This is not because they loved healthcare reform and higher taxes on the rich on Labor Day, and suddenly detested them on Columbus Day. It is solely because those versions of the candidates felt more compatible to the preservation of the American Dream.
Here is where it gets a bit ethereal. The practical-minded undecided voter carries a romanticized view of America’s promise. Where they have little interest in detailed information on plans and policies, they are outsized in the amount of trust placed in their gut and instincts. They vote for who feels right. And, much to the chagrin of the parties that spend the summer and fall courting, feelings can be fleeting.
And just what is the dream that the undecided voter is using as the basis for his or her vote? Based on the campaigns, one would think that more jobs, a strong economy, a balanced budget, and a shrinking deficit constitute the American Dream’s last lifeline. They do not. Instead, it is just as it was in 1931 when James Truslow Adams coined the term as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” And as with any dream, it is impossible to un-have it, no matter who is President or what policies are championed.
To be sure, there are serious issues at stake in this election. And it would be foolish to think that undecided voters do not have strong feelings about the country being at war, health reform, abortion, the unemployment rate, and education, amongst other things. While they may not be voracious consumers of information regarding the differing approaches to address these challenges, they are still thoughtful Americans who do not take the right and responsibility to vote lightly. But the currency of choice for the undecided voter is trust, not policy.
Perhaps, then, it is of little coincidence that the same thing that drives the market and a growing economy also drives the pragmatic voter: trust.
And so the whimsical undecideds, guided by a core belief in the American Dream, will flitter from one candidate to the other until they feel comfortable. Though now center stage, they will soon leave to exit either stage left or right. The outcome of the election hinges on that choice.
Johnson is a 2011-2012 White House fellow and naval officer. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.