Diary of an undecided voter (GOP convention edition)

There are probably less than 10% of Americans who haven't decided on who to vote for in the November Presidential election. Yet, it's often the undecided voters, like ZDNet Government's own David Gewirtz, that eventually choose the winner. Here's David's review of the GOP convention.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

Most Americans have already made up their minds who they're going to vote for. Some will just vote down party lines. Others have decided early on that they dislike President Obama or they dislike Mitt Romney and will vote for the other candidate.

See also: An undecided voter on President Obama's convention

But about ten percent of us have still not made up our minds. I'm not going to go into detail in this article why I'm still undecided, but the fact is, I'm disturbed by facets of both candidates and their parties and haven't yet determined who's the lesser of evils.

I'll probably write about those facets in another article, but for now, I'm kicking off a series of posts on how -- as an undecided voter -- I view the political events leading up to the election.

This week, the discussion is the GOP convention. Next week, it'll be the Democratic convention. Following that, in October, will be the debates.

So, let's get started. There were five speeches I was really interested in watching. I'll discuss them in the order they were presented to the public, starting with Ann Romney on Tuesday and ending up with Mitt Romney on Thursday.

Ann Romney

There's no doubt Ann Romney is a charming woman and would make a suitable First Lady. It does seem odd, though, this far into the 21st century, that we still trot the spouse of a candidate out into the glare of public lights to both testify to the goodness of the candidate and prove, somehow, that she's somehow motherly enough to be a First Lady.

In any case, Ann Romney fits the bill. She's a fine speaker. For a woman who has suffered a variety of severe medical ailments, she looks far younger than her 63 years.

And, testify she did. According to Ann, Mitt's a loving father and good husband. How could he be anything else? She gave a good speech, but I gained no deeper understanding of the man or his family, nor did it help sway my opinion in any way.

No mention was made of Seamus the dog or his 650-mile trip to Canada on the roof of the Romney's Chevy Caprice station wagon.

For the record, the dog was in a carrier, and the young Romneys had apparently installed some sort of wind barrier to protect the pooch. Frankly, with five kids (a 2-year old, 5-year old, 8-year old, 12-year old, and 13-year old) in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, I think the dog was probably much happier on the roof and away from the chaos.

My guess is that if he could, Mitt Romney himself would have prefered to trade places with the dog for that ride, just for a little peace and quiet. Are we there yet?

Next up: Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan

Condoleezza Rice

Condi Rice is always an elegant speaker, but I still find it disturbing how the former Bush administration people wear 9/11 on their shoulders like a badge of honor.

When Rice does it, in particular, it actually infuriates me, when I know there was a chance to prevent 9/11 and she's the person who squelched that opportunity.

Richard Clarke, at the time America's leading counterterrorism official, tried to present his department's intelligence information about the impending attacks, warning the President about al-Qaeda's plans. Rice, then National Security Advisor, banned Clarke from discussing the threat with the President. This is why Clarke eventually left the White House (and quite possibly why the events of 9/11 weren't prevented).

So, although it's interesting to hear her perspective, I find she's not really a credible speaker when she blames others for the issues and aftermath of 9/11.

One of my big concerns about this GOP ticket is Romney and Ryan's complete lack of international affairs experience. While Rice can offer the national security perspective that Romney and Ryan lack, I find it curious that she was given so much time in prime time, especially since she's repeatedly claimed she wouldn't accept a post in a Romney administration.

Paul Ryan

I've heard a lot of sound bites from Ryan, but I've never really seen him speak. He's the one I'm most curious about right now, because I want to see if he seems worthy to be President, in case he has to step up. After all, that's what this is really about, isn't it?

It's not whether he's a good choice to balance the ticket, or whether he brings Tea Party red meat to the convention. It's about, if Mitt Romney is elected President and then dies, whether Paul Ryan can take the reigns of the United States Government.

First impression: he's no Sarah Palin, at least when it comes to speeches. When Palin took the podium at the 2008 convention, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand, and knocked it out of the park. Of course, she'd never have been appropriate as a VP for the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph, but she was a far stronger speaker, a far more natural orator than Ryan appears to be.

Interestingly, Ryan does appear to understand the jobs problem we still have. This is something I'm very familiar with, as the author of How To Save Jobs. He asked a question I asked back when I wrote the book: with so many people out of work, why hasn't jobs creation been this administration's top priority? Can't say I don't agree with Ryan here.

Where I do disagree is with his goals for job creation. He says the Romney ticket's goal is to create 12 million new jobs over the next four years. That's a high bar, but it's far from enough. We have about 23 million Americans out of work. Worse, about 2 million new workers enter the workforce each year. So, over the course of a 4-year term, of the 12 million jobs Ryan discussed, only about 4 million of those would be available for the current 23 million out of work. It's not nearly enough.

Great line: "College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, looking up at fading Obama posters, and wondering when they can get on with life."

Thinking about it after his speech, I realized one of the things I was looking for was "the crazy". Sometimes, fundamentalist Republicans appear, well, nutty. As much as I personally like Sarah Palin, for example, she seemed a little too loony to be President.

Ryan didn't evidence any of that crazy. Although I certainly disagreed with some of his points, I found myself agreeing with many of his economic statements, certainly the ones that assessed today's economy as unnecessarily moribund.

He certainly didn't close the deal when it comes to deciding who I'll eventually vote for, but I did come to a somewhat surprising conclusion: he'll do.

Oh, as much fun as the Biden/Palin debate was, I think the one between Joe and Mr. Ryan will be equally interesting, but in a different way. Hey, face it, Joe Biden is the gift that keeps on giving to those of us in the chattering class. Not sure Mr. Ryan will provide quite as much journalistic joy.

On the next page: Dirty Harry and Mitt Romney

Clint Eastwood

Look, I'm as much a fan of Clint Eastwood as the next guy, well, of the "Go ahead and make my day" Clint, not the Bridges of Madison County, I want to be an ar-teest older Clint. I loved mean Clint. I've snoozed through chick-flick Clint.

But the point is, Clint Eastwood is no Chuck Norris. And when it comes to endorsing a political party, Mr. Eastwood's "surprise" performance was more of a surprise than I think the Republicans counted on.

Granted, it was probably better -- and certainly more tasteful -- than a holographic Ronald Reagan addressing the audience. That was another of the "surprises" discussed prior to Thursday's big night of TV.

But rather than a ghostly Reagan speaking to the assembled throngs from the Republican stage, a wizened "Dirty Harry Callahan" spoke to an empty chair, in a dramatic monologue meant to address the spirit of the current Democratic president he hoped will soon be defeated.

Why an empty chair? It was weird, bordering on the surreal. It didn't work. It really didn't work.

Looking at this through the eyes of an undecided voter, this left me more baffled and even less convinced. I'm telling you, when I found out in 2008 that Chuck Norris was endorsing Mike Huckabee (one of the most brilliant political moves in history, by the way), I was almost instantly sold on the Huck, even though I disagree with him on quite a lot.

The GOP missed an opportunity here. Clint Eastwood is no doubt an icon of the 1970s and 1980s, but this is 2012. While Chuck Norris isn't really a modern icon either, it doesn't matter. After all, if Chuck Norris had been in Sudden Impact, he would have made Clint Eastwood's day.

Mitt Romney

Romney's speech started off without a grabber, but it slowly built up. The first part of the speech that really caught my attention was his short, rather elegant eulogy to Neil Armstrong, who died last Sunday. Although it was quickly turned to a political statement, Romney used the legacy of the Apollo program to talk about big accomplishments, and had a good line: "When the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American."

I noticed that some of the chattering class described that as a nod to the birthers, but I think that's a very long stretch. American exceptionalism has long been a campaign theme of both political parties. My bigger concern is whether this indicates a desire, like that of all recent presidential candidates, to meddle in the affairs of other countries and try to sustain being the world's police force.

One thing that's dogged Romney's campaign is what the media calls the "gender gap". In his speech, Romney clearly tried to address that, and I think he did a relatively credible job. He acknowledged his own mother's failed senatorial run back in 1970, the challenge of his wife raising five children, and the various female elected officials now in office.

At no point in his speech did I get any impression whatsoever that he valued women any less than men. If there is a gender gap in this election on the part of the GOP, it's the party overall, but it certainly doesn't seem to be resident within Romney himself.

Echoing Ryan's speech the night before, Romney hit a key point by saying, "What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs."

This is a message I'll be looking for in the Democratic convention, because -- and I'll again remind you I wrote what is probably the most widely-read jobs book of the last decade -- I haven't seen a lot of job-positive policy work coming out of Washington. A key part of my decision as an undecided voter will be which candidate will make jobs a stronger focus.

Romney also echoed Ryan's promise to create 12 million new jobs. As I mentioned in the Ryan section, that's not enough to solve America's problems. Romney described five steps to creating those jobs, but one thing he didn't mention was population. Romney has five kids and 18 grandchildren, and so, in this regard, he's contributing to the problem -- rather than helping it. My detailed mathematical models showed that without some attention paid to reducing population, the jobs situation will continue to grow worse.

I was reminded, watching Romney, of previous campaign speeches by George W. Bush and John McCain -- as well as those of Ronald Reagan. George W's speeches always seemed full of bluster, while McCain's seemed vaguely out of touch with the reality unfolding right outside his convention center. Reagan, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and while it was hard to agree with everything he said, you had a sense Reagan had a mission, knew what it was, and America was his top priority.

I've been trying to tell whether Romney's in this because he wants the gig of President, or whether he wants to have an impact on America. There was some bluster in the speech (you can't have a campaign speech without it), but I was surprised to find that the multi-hundred millionaire seemed more connected to the needs of the vast majority of middle-class Americans than I've seen Washington be over these past few years.

Going into the Democratic convention next week, then, I'll be watching to see whether President Obama has the same connection to the realities of most Americans. I'll be looking for policy and priority, because -- as we all know -- the Obama administration hasn't really met the promise we all felt back in November of 2008.

Next: Overall impressions

Overall impressions

I always find it both fascinating and disturbing to watch politicians give speeches. They make claims that are sometimes completely factually inaccurate, sometimes aspirational (but ludicrously false), and sometimes complete, purposeful misrepresentations of what the other party said.

It's not just that the Republican speakers often bend the truth that bothers me. After all, you know a politician (any politician) is bending the truth because his or her lips are moving.

This convention seems somewhat more serious than those of the George W. Bush era. Perhaps that's because Mitt's a more serious man that Dubya ever was. Perhaps that's because Mitt inspires far less passion among his own party than George W. ever did. No matter what, I prefer this more-serious, less-childish version of convention behavior.

From a production design point of view, I found one of the staging elements rather ill-advised. The speakers were backdropped by a large wall of screens, but when they showed up on TV in close-ups, they only had a mottled color background behind them.

For most of the first day, the speakers were backdropped by an over-saturated image of the parchment from the Constitution. Unfortunately, when the speakers were presented on TV, viewers didn't see the Constitution. All they saw was what appeared -- more than anything else -- to be almost explosive flames. What should have been patriotic seemed more Devil's Advocate -- clearly not the intention of the campaign's handlers. You want your candidates to bring a little hellfire and brimstone to their speeches, but not appear to be from there.

Romney himself was backdropped by just a gray background, almost as if he were standing in front of smoking rubble. While you can read a lot into these production design issues, one key point to take away is that the staging of this convention wasn't quite as carefully choreographed as previous outings.

There's a lot of oddity in conventions. After all, after tailgate parties at football games, pretty much the only place you'll see people wearing cheese hats is at a political convention. But in this case, there was a strange little back and forth about what Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney listened to on their iPod playlists (where both candidates mentioned the iPod brand by name). In Ryan's case, it seemed relatively natural. In Romney's case, it seemed like something he was convinced to do against his better judgement.

That, in fact, is my big takeaway from the convention. It seems like Romney does have considerable better judgement and outside the enormous gravitational pull of special interests, he'd probably make good decisions and be a good leader. But he does seem to be convinced, regularly, to go against what he seems internally comfortable with, and I have to wonder whether -- if elected -- we'll get the Romney of the better judgement and better angels, or the Romney who is swayed constantly by trying to fit in with the conflicting demands of all those special interests.

Nothing here has convinced me to make a choice. That's good for the Republicans, because -- in previous elections -- there has often been something in a convention speech that made it clear I couldn't support the party that cycle. This time, with the exception of a little too much blind religiosity on the part of some speakers, there was nothing that was a complete deal-breaker.

There was nothing that closed the deal either. I still remain an undecided voter. I probably won't have definitive opinion until after the debates. In any case, next week, it's the Dems.

Bedtimes and politics

One of my more interesting observations this convention season is one I didn't expect: bedtimes affect political engagement.

I know this will seem weird to a lot of you (and very familiar to others of you), but for years, I went to bed very late at night (as late as 5am and 6am). I always liked writing and programming in the quiet of the night, and I naturally gravitate to late nights if I let myself.

This schedule used to make watching politics easy, especially with the help of a Tivo. I could record events like convention nights and debates, and watch them for hours later that night, taking notes, and discussing each interesting point with my wife.

But recently, I've changed my schedule to one where I go to bed at 11pm and get up at 7am. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the big one is I need to be available during working hours for clients and contractors.

I've discovered that I've been reluctant to allocate five hours a night this week to the convention. First, the coverage ends after my bed time, and second, I don't want to try to go to bed all riled up from political sports-fannery.

So, rather than full body immersion to the convention, I've been Tivoing the thing, and then picking and choosing the speeches I want to listen to, some of which I've listened to the next morning, rather than the night of the speech.

It's been an interesting change, and it's helped me realize why so many Americans (many of whom must have structured bedtimes dictated by their work schedules) have such a difficulty engaging in these bigger events.

It's hard to allocate 15 hours of your week to consume politics when you have other work that needs to be done. That, plus family time, takes a whole lot of your discretionary pre-bed time away from the 24/7 politics fire hose, especially if you're working multiple jobs.

ZDNet Government's coverage of Election 2012:

Editorial standards