Dunces hold key to US election

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The Independent US

Linda Riley may or may not vote in next month's American presidential election. Truth is, she's not that interested in politics. "It's enough of a struggle," she says, "dealing with the kids, getting to and from work, paying the bills and trying to find a bit of time for myself."

Linda Riley may or may not vote in next month's American presidential election. Truth is, she's not that interested in politics. "It's enough of a struggle," she says, "dealing with the kids, getting to and from work, paying the bills and trying to find a bit of time for myself."

Fair enough. In Santa Clarita, the conservative, politically disengaged dormitory community where she lives, north of Los Angeles, a lot of people feel the same way. Although not entirely clear on the issues, Ms Riley leans towards the Republican, George W Bush. "I think he has good leadership qualities. Besides, doesn't Al Gore want to raise taxes?"

Actually he doesn't, a point Ms Riley concedes with good grace. I ask her if there are other policy issues that might affect her choice. She thinks, but her face stays blank. "I'm sorry," she says. "I told you I wasn't very good on this stuff."

It is no surprise in any election to find people like Ms Riley - poorly informed, ideologically uncommitted, barely interested. They exist in every country, in every voter sample (usually in that amorphous category, "don't knows"). But the shocking fact of this particular presidential race is thatpeople like her decide who wins.

George Bush and Al Gore have been neck and neck in the polls for months, and their autumn campaigns have been directed almost exclusively at that middle ground populated by waverers, à la carte political shoppers and, yes, don't knows. This is not a group that demands profound, finely calibrated arguments. It's a miracle if they even know the key issues or the candidates' names. So, Mr Gore and Mr Bush use tightly honed, simple slogans, hoping they'll take root.

Thus the US presidential campaign, the race for the most powerful political post on the planet, has turned into a dummy's election - candidates talking in ludicrously facile language to an audience barely paying attention.

Catch the punditocracy unguarded and you'll hear them referring to waverers ("the swing vote") as morons, or ingrates who deserve to be herded into football stadiums and bombarded with political speeches until they cave in.

Lawrence Wechsler, of the New Yorker, says: "Anyone who still hasn't [decided] by this stage is either an idiot ... or more likely, so incapable of deciding which candidate's centrist exertions most disgust, they aren't going to vote at all." In other words, chasing after their votes is uncertain at best, and possibly futile. Yet the candidates have gladly dumbed down their campaigns, avoiding any issue that might possibly be confusing or divisive and making surenothing they say goes over people's heads.

Analyses of the language of the recent presidential debates have shown Mr Bush's English corresponds to the reading skill of the average 12-year-old. The English of Mr Gore, clearly the more intellectual, is one school grade higher.

By this standard, this is the most intellectually impoverished election in American history. Even Ronald Reagan did better, reaching out to 14- to 16-year-old level in 1980. The standard has gone down steadily since. The blame rests not just with the closeness of the race, but with television. The most immediate audience for the presidential debates, the undecided voters who sit in networks' studios and pronounce on what they see, seem so unvaryingly dim in their responses that it seems their Hamlet- like wavering is less political indecision than a desire to appear on prime-time TV.

Never mind that Mr Gore won the arguments on at least two of three occasions; audience and voter reaction focused more on his propensity for talking out of turn. "He just isn't polite enough for me," said one focus-group member.

The chilling conclusion some have reached is that the voters in the centre might actually prefer to have a presidential candidate whose mental capacities are a filament short of a light bulb. The swing voters don't want a president that they like, so much as a president who is like them.

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