Jewish World Review August 2, 2004 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5764

Jill Porter

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How odd to be an undecided: In such a polarized election, clueless factor must be high | At the end of a trip to Peru, a friend of mine visited a shaman, who sized up one of her companions as being indecisive. The spiritual leader expounded on the deep uncertainty he sensed in the young man in question - who was, indeed, a trust- fund baby trying to figure out what to do with his life.

"I think you're extremely indecisive," the shaman said, "What do you think about that?"

The young man paused for a moment and said: "I don't know."

I think of that story every time I ponder the presidential campaign's most coveted commodity these days: the undecided voter. It boggles my mind that in the midst of the most polarized campaign in memory, with starkly defined issues and candidates who are opposites, some people can't make up their minds.

How can that be? Do these people get stumped at the newsstand about whether to buy the National Enquirer or the Wall Street Journal? Vacillate in the shoe store between Birkenstock sandals or Blahnik spikes? Linger at the liquor store over the competing virtues of grain alcohol or Cristal champagne?

Because this election is not about nuance, folks. It's not about gradations in policy. It's not clouded with areas of gray. From tax cuts to stem-cell research, the camps are as well defined as a two-lane road with a yellow stripe down the middle. Not to mention that rancor runs so high that both sides see the other's candidate not as the lesser of two evils but as the incarnation of evil himself.

So, who are these people?

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Is "undecided" just a euphemism for disengaged. Are they dolts who simply aren't paying attention? Or are they independent thinkers whose emotions can withstand the fierce pressure of political spin?

The truth is, it's deceptive to say they're undecided. Most are indeed dolts who aren't paying attention; most of them won't even vote. Nearly 80 percent of the so-called swing voters aren't paying much attention to the campaign, according to a Pew Research Poll released last month. The rest of them - the real undecided voters - don't strongly identify with either party or its ideology enough to be polarized into one camp or the other.

"They aren't so committed to one party or liberal or conservative agenda that they'll let that trump their views on candidates or the major issues," said Dr. Michael Delli Carpini, head of the Annenberg School of Communications.

Temple University junior Patrick Stanko, 20, for instance, is a first-time voter who's registered Republican and who endorses GOP principles - but is leaning toward Kerry.

"I'm generally not really impressed with the first four years," Stanko said of Bush, citing the war in Iraq.

But Kerry's positions seem shaped more by public opinion than personal conviction, he said, and Kerry has yet to display the strength of leadership that could win his vote.

"I haven't made a firm decision yet," Stanko said.

Stanko doesn't fit the profile of an undecided voter, because I discovered that there really isn't one profile. The undecideds are all over the place in terms of age, sex, wealth, everything. The polls show they're stuck on the economy and the war in Iraq but worry that Kerry won't protect them as well as will Bush.

But I find it unfathomable that anyone could be stuck between two clearly articulated - and opposite - philosophies of government and life. So much so that I can't help but think that in this election, the undecideds are the lunatic fringe.

The best thing you can say is that there are fewer of them than usual at this point in the campaign season. For obvious reasons.

Maybe the rest of them will come to their senses soon - especially at the end of this week's Democratic convention, which was form-fitted to appeal to their concerns. And it is hoped by November the only one still struggling may be that unfortunate young man in Peru.

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Jill Porter is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Philadelphia Daily News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services