Skip to content

The biggest enigma of 2022? How voters actually decide

We understand so little about these complex choices

In the Democratic playbook, saying you intend to vote is not enough — you have to make a plan, Shapiro writes. Above, Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks at an election eve event in New Hampshire, joined by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas.
In the Democratic playbook, saying you intend to vote is not enough — you have to make a plan, Shapiro writes. Above, Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks at an election eve event in New Hampshire, joined by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

On a sparkling Saturday morning in Manchester, N.H., about 300 volunteer Democratic canvassers stood in a parking lot listening to 40 minutes of oratory designed to inspire them on their adventures in door-knocking. 

The Democratic cliches rained down like falling autumn leaves. 

Rep. Chris Pappas denounced the Republican agenda, saying it offers “no respect to working families in our state.” Sen. Maggie Hassan introduced Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as “truly a fighter for working families.” 

Walsh added to the pile of tired tropes as he declared, “Democrats understand the challenges people face at their kitchen tables with the cost of eggs and the cost of meat.”  

For decades, Democratic politicians and their speechwriters have been smitten with the image of “hard-working families” at their “kitchen tables.” Presumably, the Republicans are the party of “lazy families” who only talk about life on their “living room sofas.” 

Perhaps the most crucial cliche of the morning was reserved for the actual organizers of the Manchester GOTV effort. The canvassers were repeatedly instructed to make sure that everyone they contacted “had made a plan to vote.” 

In the Democratic playbook, saying you intend to vote is not enough. You have to work out a plan — that is, deciding when in the day you are going to vote and mapping out how you intend to get to your polling place. 

As Sasha Issenberg revealed in his 2012 book, “The Victory Lab,” this strategy has its roots in a voting experiment conducted by political scientist Alan Gerber and psychologist Todd Rogers. 

They built upon research in other aspects of social science that found that visualization and the “plan-making effect” changed behavior.

Testing this thesis in Kentucky in 2006, Gerber and Rogers discovered that the more detailed voters were in laying out their plans (driving versus walking; coming from home or work), the more likely they were to actually turn out. 

The 2012 Barack Obama campaign, with its heavy emphasis on door-to-door canvassing, adopted the “plan to vote” strategy with a passion. 

In recent years, the Republicans have also employed it, although not as extensively as the Democrats. A small banner on the home page of the Republican National Committee reads, “Make a Plan to Vote!

Even though voting laws and behavior have changed dramatically across the nation since 2006, the “plan to vote” mantra is particularly effective in New Hampshire, a high-turnout state still without any early voting.  

Watching the start of canvassing in New Hampshire reminded me how many gaps we still have in understanding exactly how and why persuadable voters make their decisions.

Over the next 24 hours, we will know whether the 2022 polls for the most part hit their mark or dramatically misfired. But even if the polls are dead-on accurate this year, there are so many nuances that will be missed with standard survey questions.

Asking whether a voter considers 2022 a referendum on Joe Biden’s presidency or whether inflation or abortion rights represents a more important issue serves as a crude barometer at best. These questions often better reflect how pollsters and politicos think than how actual on-the-fence voters frame their decisions. 

Like polling, campaign reporting is at a crisis point. 

Too much energy is devoted to trying to predict the electoral outcomes and too little creativity is spent on trying to understand the voters. 

Interviewing voters in diners has become an oft-ridiculed journalistic cliche. But as someone who has often gone table to table with a notebook in hand, I recognize the value in trying to ask voters questions that do not mirror the yes-no, up-or-down queries of pollsters. 

Of course, the patrons of luncheonettes and greasy spoons are not a random sample. But at a time when most downtowns are hollowed out with nearly empty sidewalks, the man-in-the-street reporting of yesteryear has gone the way of press cards in a male reporter’s fedora. 

The larger frustration with standard voter interviews is that they are often conducted on the fly — and the responses often amount to just a few sentences. These conversations can augment polls, but they are often more colorful than deeply revealing.

Jennifer Medina, in an article that appeared on the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday print edition, underscored that another type of political journalism is still possible

In a richly detailed piece, Medina chronicled a single family in Scottsdale, Ariz., in which the mother is an ardent Donald Trump backer, the father is a Buddhist libertarian, and the two adult children living at home come from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.  

Decades ago, The New Yorker followed a family in the Midwest over time as they made their voting decisions in a presidential election. The article (which I have been unable to find through online searches) had a slow-moving, old-fashioned New Yorker tone, but it represented, in retrospect, an intriguing experiment.

The 2024 presidential campaign will undoubtedly start around midday Wednesday as soon as we have quickly absorbed the off-year returns. My frail hope is that this time around, the political press corps will somehow make the voters, rather than breathless minute-by-minute updates on the horse race, the center of the story. 

For all the peril that democracy faces in an era of election denial and crazed conspiracy theories, pause for the moment today to marvel at what is happening all around us. Ordinary citizens, some who made up their minds overnight, will be choosing their representatives in the Capitol. 

It is a precious, cherished moment. And I so wish we understood it better. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

Recent Stories

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation

In seeking justice by jury trials, Camp Lejeune veterans turn to Congress