US & Canada

Viewpoint: Stop coddling dumb undecided voters

Image caption It's long past time for undecided voters to pick a side, says Justin Webb

The difference between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is vast, yet a small but crucial segment of the electorate remains undecided. The BBC's Justin Webb asks why some US voters just cannot make up their minds between the two.

I must have cut a very strange figure on Miami beach the other day. It was very hot, sparkling sunshine, glorious waves - but I was not dressed for the seaside.

I was making a film for BBC's Newsnight programme and wearing a formal shirt and what one rather unkind correspondent described as "BBC trousers" - chinos with lots of pockets.

I had a microphone receiver jammed into a belt. And I was running. Madly. Helter skelter up and down the beach, looking for my lost wallet.

After 10 minutes I was soaking and panting, and still without it. Thinking it was gone for good, I dried off, addressed the camera, and went back to our hotel.

The unconvinced

The next day I received a tweet - a picture of my wallet.

It was sent by a Mexican woman who had found it discarded in some bushes near the beach and had taken it back to Mexico with her. She'd looked me up on Twitter and was happy to send it back.

This is a story of kindness and the usefulness of modern communications, but it is also a story of action.

The woman who found the wallet took a decision - I will take the wallet home with me - and used her initiative to find me.

She is, plainly, a person who knows what she thinks is right and wrong and is willing to act on it.

How refreshing! And how unlike a certain group of people over whom the American media tend to slaver at this stage of a presidential race, but who, in my opinion, deserve much less attention than they get: the undecided voters.

In Florida I met a man walking his dog who told me very proudly that he was still to be convinced by either candidate this year.

"They're going to have to work harder," he said.

Fawned over

Then he told me - in the course of a conversation about America's space programme - that 9/11 had happened because America had lost its domination of space. If America was still sending people to the moon Osama Bin Laden would have held back.

That conversation summed up for me the two aspects of America's undecided voters that I dislike the most.

First, they have become so used to being fawned over that they have become quite arrogant.

They want to be seduced by the politicians - spoken to personally. They have a babyish desire to have their tummies tickled. It's all about them.

Secondly, they are often really stupid.

The American media suggest that these Einsteins are programming their computer-like mental machinery with so many wickedly abstruse arguments and counter-arguments for each candidate, that it is simply and naturally and wonderfully taking a long time to come up with a result.

Oh, pull the other one.

I remember back in 2008 reading an interview with an undecided voter who was asked more about her life.

Well, she said, she liked cats but she'd been thinking about getting a dog. How long for? Five years. I rest my case.

To paraphrase one of America's wiser political commentators, undecided voters are the kind of people who, when eating pickles, get their heads stuck in the jar.

There is a staggering amount of political ignorance in America but let us not lionise the Ivy League of ignoramuses - those who can see, at this moment, no difference between Mr Obama and Mr Romney.

And let us hope too that the candidates do not pander to these folk.

It made me wince to see Mr Romney on some idiotic television programme the other day talking about his technique for getting toothpaste out of a tube.

He didn't want to be there but his advisers will have suggested it as a way of getting to the undecided, who spend a lot of their time watching daytime television.

Middle-ground bilge

The president's advisers tell him the same thing - and he takes the same notice, preferring, on the first day of the United Nations General Assembly, to be on junk TV instead of meeting world leaders.

Let's hope they abandon that nonsense in the presidential debates and set out competing visions. Let's hope they thrill and enthuse those Americans who have bothered to think about politics and have a view, a passion.

Yes, it is true that political partisanship and the nastiness that can come with it is at what feels like an all-time high in America.

But being certain about what you think and being unable to compromise are not the same thing. The American media often fail to grasp that.

And here's a practical point: only just over half of Americans will vote in this presidential contest. Getting your own core supporters to the polls ought to be enough to win it - if the candidates have the courage to forget all this middle-ground bilge.

I wonder if that woman has decided whether to get a dog yet.

Whatever it is or is not, I am glad that neither she nor any other undecided voter found my wallet.

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