Friday, October 12, 2012

A quantum of umbrage: A town called Undecided

It's time -- it's past time -- to dump the town hall debate format from the calender of presidential campaign events.

On the eve of last night's VP debate, Lynn Vavreck reported, on the NYTimes blog:
After last week’s debate, the share of undecided voters in the electorate held constant at slightly less than 3%. You may be wondering how that is possible, given the dramatic and perhaps unexpected performances by both candidates. The answer? More than half the previously undecided voters failed to tune in to the debate at all.

While only 21 percent of voters who have made up their minds skipped the debate, 54 percent of undecided voters did something else with their time. Coupled with their low level of general interest in news (44 percent never or hardly ever pay attention to the news, compared to 12 percent of decided voters who opt out of news), this means word of the candidates’ performances probably never reached them directly.

Now here's some good news: The next presidential debate, on Tuesday the 16th is the so-called “town meeting” format, although I can report with some relief that it doesn't much resemble any town I ever lived in. Because it's become a bit of undisputed political wisdom that the average “town” is packed with “undecideds,” so they will make up the live audience and they will offer the questions the candidates will respond to. It will be an event held for, driven by, and dumbed down to the level of the people who aren't even paying attention.

The Times was even less kind than I'm being:
[. . . ] voters who are undecided are less well equipped in a political environment. It is as if they don’t have the skills or vocabulary to navigate the political scene or to fully comprehend it. Because they are not that interested in politics and pay little attention to news, they have no structure in place to organize political information as it comes across the transom. Many are simply not sure who won the debate – they’re not saying it was a tie. They are reporting that they cannot make an evaluation of any kind.

Heaven help us. If you thought Jim Lehrer's questions in last week's presidential debates were a bowl of strained peas and carrots, wait until you hear the questions that the “undecideds” are going to uncork next Tuesday night. As a reminder, here's the first question thrown out to John Kerry in the 2004 Town Hall Debate:
Senator Kerry, after talking to several co-workers and family and friends, I asked the ones who said they were not voting for you, why. They said that you were too wishy-washy. Do you have a reply for them?

The “undecideds” are the quintessential low-information voters. Asking them to devise questions for the candidates for President of the United States is an extreme-sport version of asking replacement referees to officiate an NFL game.

The Town Hall debate format, featuring the “undecideds,” is a gimmick that does more harm than good -- and in a post-truth, post-Citizens United presidential campaign like this, that's no mean distinction.

It panders to the sensibilities of 3% of the electorate -- and from available evidence, they won't even be watching to know they're being pandered to.

Dump the town hall debates.

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