Yo, Undecided Voters! Are You Listening? Are You Even Listening To Yourselves? Imperfect Choices And The 'Trap Of The Wrong Base Case'

Yo, you undecided voters! Do you hear what you are saying?

Sure, you’d be happier if your party had selected another nominee. So would a clear majority of voters, of all ages, of both major parties. But here is the choice you face today:

1. You vote for Trump

2. You vote for Clinton

3. You stay home, or vote for a third party candidate, which is basically the same as staying home.

With option three you are basically saying, “I’m going to let people who care more than I do decide for me, for my state, and for America.”

That’s it. Those are your three choices. There is no option 4. And you need to be clear about what those three choices are. You pick 1, or you pick 2, or you get the default, option 3, as the base case. Very few of us would willingly pick option 3 in this election.

There is a trap that people often fall into when deciding between alternatives they don’t really like. It’s the trap of imagining an additional alternative, as a better base case if you choose not to make a decision at all. This occurs so often that I have given it a name, the trap of the wrong base case. Sometimes the trap is obvious, and sometimes it’s not. I have noticed in years of strategic consulting that we all fall into this trap at some time, and we never see the trap when we are the ones in it. Of course, we never have any difficulty seeing the problem clearly when someone else falls into a trap that we avoided.

Let’s start with an obvious example. So you’re in the Carolinas this weekend, on the Coast, and your governor wants you to evacuate to higher ground. One choice is to pack some stuff in the car, leave with tens of thousands of your neighbors and get stuck in traffic, and when you arrive at your destination hours later you can try to find a motel or a shelter with space for you and your family. Another choice is to tough it out and hope that you will be ok, despite power outages, storm surge flooding, and a shortage of food and water. The third choice, choosing to have the storm cancelled for you so you can remain unaffected, is not really available as a choice. There is no third choice. We can all see that.

This week on The PBS News Hour I heard a potential voter explain that she was not sure how she would be voting. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/episode/pbs-newshour-full-episode-oct-7-2016/ at 34 minutes into the hour.) She said she could not vote for Trump, whom she called “racist” and “openly ridiculous”. But she felt that Clinton was “sneaky” and therefore she couldn’t vote for her either. She proudly informed the interviewer, and the nation, that she “didn’t want to settle”. She would rather “stay single”.

It sounds reasonable. But it’s the intellectual equivalent of trying to cancel a storm.

If you have two men invite you out on a Friday night, and one is “openly ridiculous” and the other is “sneaky”, clearly you don’t settle for either. You stay home. Your base case is neither ridiculous company nor sneaky company, but an evening with your friends and roommates. Not picking either is definitely your best decision.

If you have two men who ask you to marry, and again one is “openly ridiculous” and the other is “sneaky”, clearly you don’t settle for either. You “stay single”. Your base case is waiting it out to see how your life evolves. You do remain single. Again, not picking either is definitely your best decision.

But if you don’t vote for either candidate, can you really remain unattached? Can you really remain unaffected by rest of the electorate? Can you really sleep through the next four years? Absolutely not.

You are going to live with one or the other candidate as your president, as your commander in chief, and as the nominator of one or more of your Supreme Court Justices for years to come.

So analyze the options you really have. Remaining unattached is not one of them, not if you are going to live through the next four years in America. Is one candidate really racist, with core supporters who are really deplorable? Is this really true? What do you actually know about him? Has he said things, done things, or promised to do things that would be unacceptable to you, or to people who share your values? Is the other candidate really sneaky? Is this really true? What do you actually know about her? Has she said things, done things, or promised to do things that would be unacceptable to you, or to people who share your values?

Once you analyze your options, no matter what your beliefs, you will discover that the two candidates are not equivalent. They’re not similar in any way. Neither may be your closest friend. But they are definitely different people, with different strengths and weaknesses, with different values and priorities, and with different qualifications.

Make your decision. And then vote.

And, even if you could sleep through the next four years, if the country makes the wrong choice, you might not like what you find when you come back. David Bromberg describes Rip Van Winkle’s response to coming home after his long sleep:

Where are the men that I used to sport with? What has become of my beautiful town? Wolf, my old friend, even you don’t know me. This must be the end, my house is tumbled down!

If you live on the coast you wouldn’t expect to ignore a hurricane and remain unattached and unaffected. You would understand the trap of the wrong base case.

If you live in America you can’t try to ignore this election and remain unattached and unaffected. You need to understand the trap of the wrong base case.

Analyze. And then vote.

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