There is a group of people in America, a very small group, who are likely the least informed, yet are receiving more attention from the media than any other group of people in the country right now. They are the undecided voter. And our obsession with them is a dangerous distraction during a critical time.
It’s nearly four years into the Trump presidency, over a year into the election cycle, and just three weeks before the election. It’s hard to get a handle on how many eligible voters are still truly unsure of whom they will vote for this late in the game. Some polls put the number at a considerable 7%. Still, as Washington Post columnist points out: “It’s hard to say what the true number is, because when polls cite the “undecided,” they sometimes lump together those who truly haven’t made up their minds with those who are supporting third-party candidates and those who say they have no preference because they just aren’t going to vote.” He notes that third-party candidates picked up 6% of the votes in 2016, but that number is likely to be less this time around.
Waldman also points out that the pool of undecided voters may be smaller than it has ever been at this point in a presidential campaign. In fact, a CNN poll says that only 3% of voters really haven’t decided.
To be clear: Undecided voters have swung elections several times, and plenty of presidents have won by margins narrower than the current fraction of people still claiming to be undecided. (Jimmy Carter won by a margin of just 2 percentage points.)
At this point you may be asking yourself how exactly someone can be undecided. If a person has so far witnessed everything Trump has said and done (encouraging white nationalists, degrading military heroes, evading millions of dollars of taxes, ripping immigrant children from their parents, bragging about sexually assaulting numerous women, lying about a global pandemic that’s resulted in over 210,000 deaths, etc., etc., etc., etc.) and is still unsure if they want four more years of that, then it seems doubtful that anything could help them make up their minds. On the other side, it’s not like Joe Biden is an unknown quantity either; in fact, he will be the first to remind you that he was in the White House with President Obama for eight years.
And, yes, not feeling super excited about voting for Biden may be a position a lot of Americans find themselves in right now, but is apathy really a reason to consider voting for a person who is quite clearly unhinged and dangerous?
Media obsession . . . or curiosity?
Perhaps the undecided voter is so intriguing to news outlets because they seem to exist outside of the world the rest of us live in—the world of constant doomscrolling and a news cycle that moves at breakneck speed. Have they somehow managed to opt out of all of it? Have they truly not formed an opinion of the most infamous man in the world?
But what is the country gaining by hearing their misinformed opinions? If they are really undecided and need more information, then shouldn’t news outlets be spending the time giving actual information? If you were an undecided voter looking for policy information on the candidates, it would take a lot of searching to find it. (For our part, Fast Company is publishing a series of articles on where Trump and Biden stand on some of the issues that are most important to voters.) Instead, many news outlets continue to seek and share the opinions of the least-informed section of the electorate. Following the vice presidential debate last week, Fox News devoted a full segment to what 10 undecided voters thought. (Their takeaways were solely about Harris and Pence’s tone and demeanor, not about the content of their ideas.) CNN similarly devoted time to the opinions of the marginal group of undecided voters.
Have they somehow managed to opt out of all of it? Have they truly not formed an opinion of the most infamous man in the world?
The biggest reason why we need to stop paying attention to undecided voters may not be that there numbers are too insignificant to change the outcome of the election, or that they are woefully misinformed. It’s that they aren’t actually undecided—in fact, they aren’t likely to vote at all. In an NPR interview with undecided voters following the first presidential debate, several supposedly undecided voters said they were so turned off by the whole ordeal that they would like pass on voting altogether.
Just like in 2016, this election will be largely decided by two kinds of voters: Those who will stand by the president even if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” or gives them a deadly disease, and those who don’t want a dangerous, racist, mentally unstable tyrant running the country. For the small third group of people who can’t decide between the two options, there is nothing in most coverage of the election that will change their minds.
So perhaps in these final few days before the election, we could all spend a little less time focused on the least informed among us, or talking about a fly on the vice president’s head, and a little more time focusing how we, the 97% decided electorate, will make sure to cast our ballots.