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October 29th, 2008
11:10 AM ET

Inside the mind of an undecided voter

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

When I am in the operating room, I am a very good decision maker. I make the right decision, and I make it quickly. Place a burr hole here instead of there. Extend the fusion to T1 instead of C7, or use a fenestrated clip instead of a straight one. I am good at those decisions. Ask me to pick out a tie in the morning, and I am seemingly paralyzed until my sleepy wife comes over and yanks one out and hands it to me. It is always the perfect tie and no surprise; she thinks I am a terrible decision maker. She thinks I can be wishy washy.

When it comes to decision making, I am apparently not alone. And, thanks to Sam Wang, a neuroscientist from Princeton, (read study) I may have a pretty good defense. There is no question there are still a lot of people who are undecided when it comes to picking a president, and Sam has a pretty good idea why. He, along with his colleagues think peering into the brain may offer a few clues.

Generally speaking, decision-making can be broken down into two distinctive pieces. The first part is when you gather evidence, and then second part is when you commit. That can be like a switch going off. In the brain of an undecided voter, it may be that “evidence gathering” part that is simply taking longer. It’s not that these undecided are indifferent, according to Wang, but they are more willing to take their time, essentially trading off speed for accuracy. At some point though, they typically hit a tipping point and the decision is activated.

Other undecided voters may have an even more interesting process happening. They have already made up their minds, but they haven’t committed yet. They will tell you they are undecided, even though their brain has gathered the necessary evidence and a decision has been activated. Often times, people around them already know the individual’s decision, before the individual does. When my wife picks out that tie for me, she may already know that tie is my preference, even though I haven’t decided yet. There is a third group as well. This is a group that thinks they have decided, but when it comes to actually voting, they switch their minds at the last second. They thought they were committed emotionally, but the brain had gathered evidence and pointed them in a different direction.

It gets a little confusing.

Wang thinks you can tease out the true intentions of an undecided voter by asking more open-ended questions in polls. So, instead of asking, “Whom would you vote for if the election were held today, Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain?” Instead, you ask, “Who do you think understands your problems better?” or “Are you more concerned about the economy or terrorism?” or even “Which candidate has the better temperament?”

None of these open-ended questions would help me pick out a tie, but they might help you decide on electing a president. Are you still undecided? If so, why do you think you are still uncommitted?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (135 Responses)
  1. Sara

    I like what Tim said about trusting your heart, gut, AND mind to make a decision. Making a decision based 100% on figures and data seems cold and calculating, making a decision based entirely upon your gut feeling seems pretty risky and impetuous, and making an important decision based completely on emotions seems dramatic and unrealistic. It's pragmatic to include all three "voices"

    I'm glad not to be undecided, I cast my vote 2 days ago :)

    October 30, 2008 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Venkat

    Nice article but I think you give these "undecideds" too much credit. There are basically two types of undecideds:

    1. Those that have been living in a cave for the past 2yrs (must have been reached by one of the 1239151 pollsters that are seemingly going around)
    2. Those that have already decided but want to say they haven't because they just love all the attention they're getting from the pollsters and CNN (hey! can I have one of those fancy dial remote things that you used during the debates?)

    For those in category 1, the answer is for them to move into deeper and more remote caves so that they cannot be contacted by pollsters.

    For those in category 2, they need to get a life.... really.

    October 30, 2008 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Dan, IL

    I suppose someone can take more time to think thru the issues before deciding on a candidate but with the stark differences between McCain and Obama I struggle with how someone could still not have decided by this point in time.

    Do they lack principle? Maybe. A person who could still vote for either candidate after knowing what he/she knows today is someone who needs moral grounding. Both candidates are moral opposites and if that doesn't matter, then that is proof in itself the undecided needs moral grounding.

    You can spend your whole life thinking about, "what ifs" and never get anything done. You must spend some time in this area for important decisions but, at some point, core values should take over and eliminate the confliction.

    Education is good and we never stop being educated. However, degrees from prestigious institutions do not a man/leader make – necessarily. Sometimes, life just happens and one just doesn't take that road – or is unable to take that road due to lack of priviledge. Sometimes education even affects judgement because it can create a false sense a confidence. Some of the greatest leaders of the country and large corporations had very little education.

    Tuesday will bring relief to all this tension. Some will be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

    October 30, 2008 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bruce

    Cathy,

    That is jaw-dropping!

    October 30, 2008 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Wade

    Cathy, your views are so confined by your political blinders it's not worth discussing with people like you. Nicely made argument though, from your completely biased perspective. But what does it have to do with the article?

    My point is this... I am an undecided voter... but not because of any of those reasons. The reason I am undecided is that the propaganda in elections is so thick, you can not trust anything you have heard... and if you can, what you can trust is that you didn't hear the whole truth.

    This creates a situation where a person can feel like they can't make an informed decision, and therefore precludes conclusion to the "evidence gathering" phase.

    As with all media today, they see fit to bombard us with so much misinformation and half truths, that propaganda is what wins elections, not facts. Instead of hiding information from us, they bombard us with so much of it that you can't do anything but vote without knowing... or vote for your favorite "team"... which I refuse to do.

    The two party system is broken, and until we are somehow empowered to rise above the propaganda, and vote on issues and true character, we will merely be choosing which sheep herd to follow... which again, I refuse to do. George Washington agreed...

    http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/farewell/

    October 30, 2008 at 16:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. SteveK

    Cathy:

    You hit it right on the head with a very thoughtful comment. I'm putting it up in my office and emailing it to my friends.

    October 30, 2008 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jonas

    What if Obama hadn't surrounded himself with Marxist friends and become deeply infatuated with socialism?
    What if Obama hadn't declared the US Constitution deeply flawed?
    What if Obama understood the foundations upon which this nation was built?
    What if the future of this nation isn't dependant on smarmy elitists (or their admirers) who think people who attended Harvard are better than us?

    October 30, 2008 at 16:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Theresa Q.

    Well, as unbelievable as it is, I have still not decided on who I will vote for President. The reason is quite simple really – I think all the candidates stink. Can someone just throw these guys away and give us new ones? Lets take em one by one:

    Obama – well he talks a good game, but just doesn't have much actual substance to back it up. I can't understand why people go nuts over him when his actual real-life accomplishments are lackluster. Talk is cheap. This whole "distribution of wealth" goes against everything our country was built on. My father grew up in a tenament house in New York City during the depression – you pull up your bootstraps and you get to work – you don't turn to handouts – it will eventually crush the spirit. I don't think Obama understands this and it scares me.

    McCain-while I admire some of what he has done – I also think he's ridden daddy's and wifey's coattails a bit too much to call himself a "Maverick". Anyway, true mavericks don't proclaim it. While he's not Bush, I still have a very bad taste in my mouth from the Republican bullying and kissing up to the religious right (Terry Schiavo anyone?). Part of me just wants to clean house of the Republicans to teach them a lesson – not smart, I know. Regardless, neither him nor his ideas excite me.

    Bob Barr: normally I would heavily consider voting Libertarian but Barr disgusts me. He was in my district. He was heavily involved in the push to impeach Clinton all the while having his own affair – repulsive hypocrite! He's the only one I now for SURE won't be getting my vote Tuesday.

    So, there you have it. I'd vote for Colin Powell but he ain't running. I'll be voting Tuesday, just don't ask me for who.

    October 30, 2008 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Who Cares

    It's easy to see why so many have yet to make a decision. The amount of conflicting and distorted information coming from both sides is overwhelming. For instance, the post by Cathy is as slanted as anything coming from the most partisan sources. In this case, it's not so much what is asked as what isn't:

    What if Obama had spent five years in a POW camp undergoing daily torture?
    What if Obama had spent over 20 years serving his country in uniform?
    What if Obama had a distinguished Senate career of over 20 years?
    What if Obama had a clear record of opposing his own party on principal when necessary (e.g., Immigration, the Gang of Fourteen)?
    What if McCain had simply voted "present" 129 times while in the state senate?
    What if McCain had questionable ties to characters such as Rezko, Wright, Ayers, and Khalidi?

    Make up your own mind, but get ALL the facts; don't be misled by this ersatz example of "the voice of reason".

    October 30, 2008 at 17:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Paul in Chicago

    For the moderators: I'm intrigued. You've let a partisan email forward that's been making the rounds of our inboxes for about a week now be posted by "Cathy" as a comment to this column. However, not only have you not posted my response to it, you haven't posted any other comments at all! Do you really want that campaign piece to be the last word in the comments?

    October 30, 2008 at 17:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sara

    This country needs McCain and his experience. Obama has a good smile and is young. That's it. He has no clue how to bring this country back to its toes. Vote for Obama and this country is doomed.

    October 30, 2008 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. ME

    I agree with Mr. Wang, "brain of an undecided voter, it may be that “evidence gathering” part that is simply taking longer. It’s not that these undecided are indifferent, according to Wang, but they are more willing to take their time, essentially trading off speed for accuracy". It's not a matter of "not trusting [one's] core values", rather it is about choosing the best, and assessing the canidates values to assure they are in-line with mine. There are many beliefs that Senator McCain holds that I agree with. The same goes for Senator Obama. I also like Burr and agree with his political views. For some voting is simply going straight ticket, without ever considering what that person truly stands for, without considering what if this person were no longer able to function as president, without ever considering if they are really concerned about me...the average citizen. Voting is not only our right, it is our responsibility. We must elect officials that will uphold our rights, stand by our nation, and do what is best for our country...not the party, not their pocket or the buddy's pocket. Our elected officials must truly want our nation to be the very best it can be...not the bully on the block. As an undecided, I take my voting responsibility very seriously. I have three children and 4 grandchildren that I want the very best for. That means the very best president and vice president, one's that will hopefully leave our world better than they got it. Not a snap decision.

    October 30, 2008 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Diane A

    For me, decisions relative to political candidates follow some simple rules. They are therefore easy to make:

    1) Character, specifically the willingness and ability to act responsibly as Americans in government. MCCain/Palin win here because they have shown strong moral values (McCain is strong on foreign policy, and they are pro-life, have honorable friends, and pro-America (usually a non-issue, except for Obama's history and recent past). Obama/Biden: Obama – voted 3 times for infanticide, chose to have several friends who hate America, and was/is so anti-American that he refused to wear a flag pin until nominated. He also does not like the US Constitution. Biden means well but his ability to act responsible is in question – he has a bad memory and says things related to foreign policy that are wrong by mixing facts.).

    This suggests that McCain/Palin are more likely to make decisions that honor my belief system, and Obama/Biden are not.

    2) Executive experience and policies. McCain/Palin win here too because Palin has successfully managed a $9B budget, and both support a balanced-budget and economic plan that is proven at economic success – 'unfettered' trickle-down always works. Trickle-up has never worked, ever. Obama/Biden want to 'play-with' socialism (share the wealth), and communism (no more secret ballots in unions, putting unions on company boards, etc), impose the 'fairness doctrine' on talk radio programs (destroying talk radio); impose universal pre-school, which is nothing more than nationalized baby sitting – imagine the logistics of moving infants around safely, never-mind the problems associated with 'detachment' in mother-child bonds. They will also threaten social morale and scare investors away from investing in anything because these policies are contrary to the American way of life, the concept of freedom, and foreign to us, which will cause people to stop buying, stop companies from moving forward, and stop investors from investing – self-fulfilling negative acts that also happen to move the uninformed toward thinking that we must need more socialism (social sharing), communism (economic socialism) etc to solve the problems. Instead of letting the free market take care of itself.

    Responding to Cathy, I don't care what schools they graduated from or the time it took to earn their degrees, because we don't really know what useful education they received until they put their knowledge and abilities to work. (I once fired a Harvard MBA with good grades for incompetence.)

    McCain graduated from a military academy and shows good national security (military and foreign policy) skills. Palin shows good all-around skills as a leader, mayor, governor, and decision maker. Obama has not yet put his skills to work except for writing a few books about himself and mostly voting 'present'. Biden is ... perhaps in need of some re-education.)

    October 30, 2008 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jelen

    I am voting my conscience. My choice, of who I vote for, is not based on color.
    The media refers to Mr. Obama as "the first Afro-American" to be nominated for president. That is a false statement. Mr. Obama is biracial. He had a black father AND a white mother.
    This has been a VERY long campaign. I am thoroughly discussed with some of the God awful comments made about all the canidates from inside and outside of their party.
    All of us should get down on our bended knees and pray for WHO EVER wins on 11-4-08 theoffice of President of the U.S.A. know what he is doing

    October 30, 2008 at 18:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Ralph

    Cindy,

    What if you were objective and hadn't made up your mind and were not trying to sway others?

    You've displayed your decision making process but are unlikely to sway others who don't think like you do.

    What if you value people saying what they believe and doing as they say?

    What if a candidate promised one thing on campaign finance reform then completely changed his tune when he saw an advantage? Class rank is one thing, but it doesn't make one smart or honest.

    What if one candidate is falling the same path with his proposed economic plan that mirrored on that made the Great Depression worse? Would you vote for him?

    What if socialism is not what you view as a viable option?

    What if your doctor just got out of school and you have an unusual disease requiring complex thought and fast on your feet thinking? Do you prefer that person of the veteran who's been around and made decisions right or wrong and been willing to go against convention?

    Your explanation on racism reveals something about you that I am certain of but don't wish to say. You are seeing the world as you are not as it is.

    October 30, 2008 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Jay

    Cathy, did you forget, the Obamas did parade their two children across a stage and interviewed on TV?

    I guess you think being a prisoner of war is not as important as attending Harvard.

    October 30, 2008 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Josh

    If you're still undecided at this point you shouldn't be allowed to vote. Call me a fascist, but I have no tolerance for this, "I'm not quite sure who to vote for" nonsense. The candidates are completely different and have been campaigning for two years! It really frustrates and angers me that the future leader of this country in such a crucial moment in history will be decided by a group of clueless nincompoops. G-d help us all.

    October 30, 2008 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Dave

    Cathy: Excellent analysis.

    October 30, 2008 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. pam

    Cathy's comment should be on bulletin boards everywhere.

    October 30, 2008 at 19:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Rich

    Cathy,
    What if some people just don't like his stance on certain issues? Is that racist?

    October 30, 2008 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Ratna, New York, NY

    Dear Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

    Interesting information, especially applied to health education. I think that there are people undecided on the difference of good and bad lifestyle habits as well.

    I think that the undecided voter (or decision maker) waits to have the decision made for him/her, untill he/she is urged to make this decision independently.

    Similarly, If your was not present to choose your tie, eventually you had to make that decision yourself.

    October 30, 2008 at 20:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Jared

    Cathy, would you really vote for someone based on any of the qualities listed in your post? I think most of America is smarter than to vote for a presidential candidate based on their standing in their college class, what their wife does for a living, or how well they speak. Regardless of what side of the isle you vote one, voting based on any of the above does not make sense. The most important thing to consider when voting for someone is whether or not their policy will positively affect you (their constituent). It is interesting that because the race has been relatively close you assume that the country is racist. Have you considered that perhaps people are voting based on things that really matter?

    October 30, 2008 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. NotCathy

    Cathy,

    Your biases are obvious, as you havent mentioned ACORN, Michelle Obama's thesis, – What if McCain's wife had written a speech on White Power like Michelle wrote on Black Power?
    What if a republican had hung an effigy of Obama on his front yard like a democrat did of Palin. Wouldn't you see Page 1 flashing news all over liberal media of "lynching". I'm shocked that women are not outraged when one of them is hung in effigy.. goes to show that feminine power is gone out the window along with decency.. but we knew that liberals had none. What if McCain was closely associated with Bill Ayres instead of Obama? What if McCain was caught reading "Post America book" and not putting his hand on his heart while the national anthem was recited? Who is the real patriot? Education is not worth squat as much as a love for the country. Look at Schwartzeneggers record versus George Bush who has a Yale degree!

    October 30, 2008 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Janet Mace

    Cathy's comment is one of the most brilliant items I have read concerning the Obama vs. McCain issue. I have sent it to my Obama-supporting friends as ammunition against the rampant McCain mania here is Orange County, California. Cathy, you put information that is commonly available into one of the most cogent arguments for Obama that I have ever seen. Bless you for saying this so clearly and so consisely–it's a perspective that makes total sense, but one that had never occurred to me!

    October 30, 2008 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Jim

    There was an article about this in Scientific American a few years ago. Some people (said the article) are slow decision-makers because they have to optimize every decision. They can't just pick a stereo or a car or a mate that meets their basic needs; once they have found one that does, they have to compare it to others and weigh the relative differences. They feel they must make the single best possible decision, and seem to have an unusually high fear of regret – if they subsequently realized they could have made a better choice, it will drive them crazy. To me (probably a member of this group) the theory sounds right, but it also intuitively feels like a form of obsession. The variables don't add up to a tipping point, so one helplessly keeps studying the issue. If Dr. Gupta has this problem with his ties in the morning, I submit that maybe the surgical decisions are easy by comparison only because he has a clear set of pre-defined rules for surgical decisions, or else has resigned himself to the inevitability of surgical errors. On less-structured decisions (such as neckties and presidents), lacking a clear set of rules, he may have to wait until either his gut or his wife have finally had enough and settle the matter.

    October 30, 2008 at 22:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. suecris

    Cathy, that was excellent. Thank you.

    October 30, 2008 at 23:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Julie

    I think it is best for a few of us remain undecided/ucommitted until several days before the election. How else could we get the additional "promises" from the candidate? Did I hear McCain say "no income tax for those over 65 on their first $50k"? Or Obama indicate "don't tax the 401Ks".? Now I am really undecided. Should I go 401K or no tax on first 50k? Got to love it. JR

    October 30, 2008 at 23:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Jennifer

    Why am I undecided? Because the ability to gather evidence has been tainted. I'm a lifelong democrat, with a degree in journalism, who no longer trusts the media to be objective. Earlier this fall, I gave both candidates a serious look. Leaning towards McCain for a while gave me a new perspective on significant media bias towards a candidate. I'm back to leaning towards Obama, but have serious lingering questions how far to the left he is...and the mainstream media won't ask Obama the tough questions. When they do, they're vilified.

    October 31, 2008 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Ms. M

    For those of you who are still undecided, please seriously consider Sen. Obama. As listed in the comment from Cathy, it is clear that Sen. Obama has not only the educational background but the national and international experience to help bring positive change to our country. Vote! If possible, vote early!

    October 31, 2008 at 07:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Eileen

    Where are Sarah Palin's health records? Have they been released. If no, why not. I thought this was required of a candidate. I think it is the responsibility of the media to pursue this in teh closing days of the election since she could be a heart beat away from the presidency.

    October 31, 2008 at 07:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Rob O

    Cathy,

    If McCain served in the Senate for only 2 years before running for president but spoke really well, his messages about change would've fallen on deaf ears because he wouldn't have done anything important enough to warrent attention.

    If Obama was the one who served his country in the military and senate for 20 years, there'd be no question who'd win.

    October 31, 2008 at 09:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Milo

    I didn't decide until the debates. I found the "unbiased" background checks (covering pre-school up to today), the gossip, and the endless spinning from the media so confusing that I really needed to hear, from their own mouths and body language, what kind of president I would like to vote for.

    I talked to many "early" deciders and they decided based on their party or on "values" (a horribly abused word in today's world).

    I know that each time I listened to the candidates, without prejudice and being undecided until the debates, I found I would make a choice easy for me and not before the debates.

    October 31, 2008 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Laura

    I'd like to know when it became obligatory to trumpet your voting choices to the public. Never before have I felt so very assaulted from all sides by people trying to wheedle their way into my political mindset. We cast secret ballots for a reason!

    I absolutely abhor politics. It tends to bring out the worst in people and unless you're in a room with completely like minded people it turns into a piranha frenzy on the lesser represented group. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion until it's different from yours. This cycle we're treated to being bludgeoned for supposed racism or sexism to boot.

    I'm registered as independant because I don't completely identify with either party. When I've been asked who I'm voting for I essentially say "undecided", but I'd rather say "none of your business". I'll get attacked no matter which side I announce support for, and I'm thoroughly displeased with both options. There was a lot of potential in the canidates this cycle but sadly they managed to get all muddied up by the end.

    November 3, 2008 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Deborah

    I just lost my 84 year old father.

    He was one of the fortunate ones as it relates to healthcare—he had Medicare as well as an excellent private healthcare policy as a retiree from the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. As a result, he rarely had much to pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare expenses that he incurred over the past three years. He had congestive heart failure.

    So what’s the gripe, what’s the problem: – WASTE, WASTE, WASTE! My father was in the hospital 8 times over a six month period, with six visits to the emergency room. I was at his side through each visit. I was absolutely shocked at our system and the amount of waste incurred—at each and every level of the healthcare system. This waste must stop if we want get healthcare costs under control. We must get in there and cut waste, eliminate redundancy from the system, use the technology we have to make the system more efficient, and be sure procedures that are “ordered” are actually helpful and necessary. Providing healthcare to everyone is a dream to our family [as my husband and I are paying for our own high-deductable plan ($10,000 each, without prescription coverage) and worry about being dropped)]. At the same time, it was apparent to me, through my experience with my dear father, that the system is broken and out of control.

    Talk to me. I have more hours inside the healthcare system over the past 6 months than many individual nurses doctors, and administrators. I have simple ideas that can make huge differences.

    Deborah Testa
    Daughter to Patient: John S. Graban Jr.

    November 7, 2008 at 11:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Rose Bosacker

    I am a travel nurse and have worked in over a dozen hospitals in six states. My greatest concern in nursing thus far occurred in Tucson, Arizona two years ago. I was telling my manager how difficult it was for me to feel compassion for my patient who was an illegal immigrant who'd been arrested for drug smuggling, brought to the hospital by local law enforcement. He was found in the desert, near death, by two hikers. Turns out, he was so desperate and in need, he told authorities his name, address, connections, everything. I told my manager that I felt so angry that here he was, unable or unwilling to speak English, and yet communicating with me through a hospital paid translator. He was receiving free medical care... 3 meals a day, a shower, expensive antibiotics and pain medication, intravenous rehydration... the works. Meanwhile, down the hall, I had a patient who had been recently diagnosed with lung cancer. A citizen of The United States... but he didn't have health insurance. So he's going to get a bill that he can't possibly pay and then a very nice lady from the hospital's business office will call him to set up a "payment plan". And he will agree to pay $300 a month.... for several years! His cancer will wipe him and his family out.... not just financially... but emotionally and mentally. And the insurance companies and the hospital administrators get rich. I don't get it. I have many similar stories. Homeless heroin addicts in Seattle admitted for the treatment of infected injection sites, who receive the same compassionate care from me that I give to my cancer patients... difference is, the homeless heroin addict doesn't have to pay his bill. Again, I just don't get it. It's just wrong. I would like the Obama administration to tell me how they plan to make healthcare FAIR and accessable to ALL in our very near future.
    Rose Bosacker, R.N.

    November 19, 2008 at 21:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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