Deconstructing the Undecided Voter

With just weeks until Election Day, both George W. Bush and John Kerry are criss-crossing the country trying to persuade undecided or wavering voters that he is the right man to run the country. But what does it take to change a voter's mind? A better-than-expected performance in a 90-minute debate? A hometown campaign stop? A spate of attack ads?

Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor at Harvard, has been pondering these very questions. In his latest book, "Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds" (Harvard Business School Press), Gardner identifies key elements of the decision-making process and explains how they can be influenced to alter the outcome. NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett Ozols spoke with Gardner about how presidential debates shape voters' choices and which campaign strategies have been most effective in swaying them. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How much do the debates influence voters?

Howard Gardner: I think they've had a lot of influence. The best indication of that was that we were told there was a 3 to 5 percent swing vote, but it's clear it's actually several times larger, closer to 15 to 20 percent. Clearly, the swing vote is not entirely tied to the debates, but it's the biggest factor.

It seems like some of these swing voters have swung back and forth over the past few weeks.

Some people actually don't realize they are swing voters till they get to the polls ... I would say there's a base of about 40 percent who won't change their minds [in this election] no matter what. Among those who aren't committed, you almost never have a sudden shift of the mind--though it may feel that way experientially. But anyone watching would see several indications earlier. I see it as waves building up that crest into consciousness. Let's take someone who considers himself a Bush voter. Over the months, he's exposed to lots of data, ads, debates ... and if I'm observing him, I realize he is paying more attention to things he hadn't before and doing things he didn't before--say, listening to National Public Radio instead of watching Fox News. I can say this is someone susceptible to becoming a Kerry voter. But he thinks he's a Bush voter until he gets into the voting booth and decides to vote for Kerry. Of course, the switch could be from Kerry to Bush or even to Nader, too.

There's been some controversy over John Kerry's invoking Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter during a question on same-sex marriage in Wednesday's debate. Can a single comment like that cost a candidate votes?

No, but it is enough to take someone who's wavering and push them in one direction. To me, people will not ram on this again and again because it's too sensitive. I think people who watched it might think it may have been an unfortunate comment, but it was not a "gotcha" comment.

In the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Kennedy's telegenic looks were seen as a real advantage over Nixon, who'd refused makeup and appeared haggard. How do you think Bush and Kerry appeared on TV?

I think this is a rare case where Bush was better on radio than on television. I listened to some of the debate on the radio. Bush spoke slowly and enunciated. The problem was, if you saw it on TV, he had these silly grins that made him look ineffectual. But if you just heard him on the radio, I think he sounded fine. This is what I call representational redescription. You are making the same point in many different ways--the way you hold yourself, your facial and bodily expressions--not just what you say. When you saw Bush making the silly expressions--and his body language seemed stilted--it worked against him. Kerry's body language hasn't worked against him in the same way.

How much influence can that have on voters watching the debates?

There's another mind-changing "lever" called resonance, basically likeability and trustworthiness. I think the debates are more about resonance than anything else; they're not particularly about reason or research. I think the average voter watching the debate asks himself or herself: how likeable is this person? How trustworthy is this person?

Who came out stronger in that area?

I think Bush had an enormous likeability advantage going into the debate that I didn't think would change. But other than that second debate, in which he seemed comfortable because I think he likes that type of audience, he came off as less likable because he looked less confident in his own skin. Somebody said he had the same variance across three debates as [Al] Gore did last time. Whereas, while Kerry didn't necessarily make himself more likable, he certainly didn't come across as the ogre he seems in some ads. By dint of Bush undermining his likeability, Kerry helped himself. Kerry reduced the likeability gap.

What about trustworthiness?

The issue of trustworthiness is really the most important issue raised in the debate. Likeability is who do you want to have a beer with; trustworthiness is really important--like who is going to take us to war and how are they going to conduct a war? Here you have a stark difference. It's the flip-flop versus resolute but wrong. The Bush camp went a long way for a long time, and to great effect, to accuse Kerry of being a flip-flopper.

You're talking about the ads?

I was astounded by the power of the Swift Boat ad and of the windsurfing, flip-flopping ad. That was brilliant; a visual presentation of what a flip-flop is like. That is not a good thing to be. To have reasons for changing your mind is a good thing. But the weakest part of Kerry's campaign is that he could have given a very good rationale on why he went to war in Vietnam and then changed his mind and why he supported the war in Iraq and then changed his mind. Because in both cases what the president and his associates were telling us was not the truth. But [Kerry] never went that way.

There's no question that people see Bush as resolute; some see that as wonderful and some see it as stubborn. Kerry's job [in the debates] was to say that you can be resolute, but that can be really injurious to the body politic. He never went so far as to say Bush is a reckless gambler. Instead, he said Bush was not telling you the truth.

What's wrong with that?

The problem with that is that people love to be able to assimilate a persona presented by the media to prototypes they already know. Bush was very successful in portraying Kerry as being wish-washy and effete and portraying himself as the lone, brave cowboy. Kerry would have been well advised to say: this isn't the lone, brave cowboy but a gambler who's got tricks up his sleeve. He didn't go that way, but hinted that [Bush] was a liar without saying it. I don't think it was as effective a media type. The Bush folks were really good at culturally stereotyping Kerry negatively; Kerry was never as successful at stereotyping Bush negatively.

What is the toughest challenge now for each side?

The toughest challenge will be to keep those who have begun to tip in your direction. Everyone has great resistance to changing their minds. The candidates have got their base, and they'll never get the other side's base. But they need to nail the tippies who are leaning in their direction. I think it's a mistake for either side to simply repeat the ads they think are effective at this point ... You want to convey your most powerful points in a somewhat new way so people think they are seeing something new, but it makes the same point. It may take people close to the tipping point and push them over the edge.

How many "tippies" are out there now?

I'd say about 7 to 8 percent [of registered voters]. And we're only talking about a half dozen states. It may be fewer than a million voters. But it's those votes they [the candidates] are fighting for.

Deconstructing the Undecided Voter | News