Sunday, May 20, 2007

How to decide for whom to vote

In America when people are being encouraged to take part in our democracy and to vote they are invariably told to listen to what the candidates say, make their decision and then go to the polling place and vote. High school students are led through school elections in which they are explicitly told to listen to the speeches and vote for the candidate giving the speech they liked best. They are told that this is training for how to be a good citizen and vote when they turn 18. This advice to vote for the speech and campaign you like best is so pervasive and ubiquitous that it probably has not occurred to most Americans that any other approach could be advocated. This is amazing to me because not only is that the worst approach to voting that I can imagine, but it is also not the way a majority of Americans decide for whom to vote.

In a general election (rather than a primary) roughly one third of Americans almost always vote for the Republican candidate (no matter who is running or what the supposed issues are), one third vote for the Democratic candidate (irregardless of the personalities and issues) and the remaining third are swing voters. Even in what is described as a landslide election rarely does a major party candidate get less than 33% or more than 67% of the vote. That means that two thirds of American voters are NOT following the standard advice for how to vote. They are NOT listening to the individual candidates and then deciding for whom to vote in each race based on what they have just heard the candidates say or how the individual campaigns present themselves.

Why do people vote the party rather than the candidate? I probably don’t need to tell you because the chances are that you are party voter and know why. People running for office lie and say things calculated to get them elected rather than what they really believe or how they will actually govern. Campaigns are run by people skilled in manipulating public opinion using techniques perfected by the advertising industry. If all you know about a candidate is what they have said during the campaign and what their campaign has presented about the candidate then you know nothing at all about how they will conduct themselves in office.

When you choose a party rather than a candidate you can base your decision on the track record of the party. You can look at how the country, state, county, city was run when the party was in power (or how it is currently being run by the party currently in control.) Although far from perfect, this is a much better predictor for what groups and interests a candidate will favor in office and what their basic values and principles are than listening to the candidate’s speeches or reading the literature and looking at the images created by the campaign.

So why is the advice to listen to the candidates and individually choose a candidate separately for each race so pervasive? Is it a plot by the advertising industry? Does such advice serve the interests of the ruling classes and the corporate media? Leave a comment and explain it to me.


Anonymous said...

Well, let's say you are anti-war. Should you vote for the party whose presidents have presided over the U.S. getting into WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam & Kosovo? Or the party whose presidents have presided over the U.S. getting into the two Gulf Wars? (Seems kind of like a no win situation, doesn't it?)

Was Eisenhower cautious about using military power abroad because he was a republican? Or because of his experience commanding troops in WWII? (I honestly don't know, his presidency was way before I was born -- but I suspect that his caution was born of experience, and I also suspect that his speeches might have given the voter clues about his disposition.)

Or on another issue, who could have predicted that voting for the democratic candidate in 1992 would lead to welfare reform? Maybe somebody who listened to Bill Clinton's speeches, but not someone who looked at the historical example of previous democratic presidents.

In my limited experience, political party labels don't seem that useful when picking a president. Political power is so centered around the president, that the party does what he (or maybe someday she) says rather than the other way around.

With legislators, obviously it's a different story.


Dave Barrett said...

You appear to be trying to refute my idea that looking at the track record of the party is a better predictor of how an elected official will behave in office than listening to what she/he says during the campaign, but all you have talked about is how particular actions by particular elected officials seem to confound YOUR idea of what someone from that particular party would be likely to do. To refute my idea you would have to talk about what these elected officials said during their campaigns and show that it turned out to be a better predictor for what they actually did than looking at the track record of their party.
And even if you had done that you would have also had to show how the examples you picked were in some way representative.

Ignoring what candidates and their campaigns say and making your decision based on past and current party performance will be particularly important in the 2008 election when many Republican Party candidates will be trying to distance themselves from the failed and unpopular actions of the Bush Administration. In the 2006 election many Republican candidates (including Joe Lieberman) tried during the campaign to create the impression they were against the Iraq War, but almost all of the just elected Republican candidates have cast votes since the election that continue to fund the war.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you consider Joe Lieberman to be a Republican makes me think we don't even agree on facts, so arguing over the fine points of "better" seems pointless.

I'll leave it to your other readers to decide if my original comment is a reasonable answer to your question about why people might vote for a candidate rather than a party, particularly when choosing a president.

Dave Barrett said...

Fair enough, I also am quite willing to leave it to the readers to determine which of us has made the better case.

It would not be surprising if a liberal and a conservative did not agree on the facts. Reality itself seem to have a liberal bias these days, causing at least some conservatives to reject it. It would not be surprising at all if someone in the reality-based world had a different set of facts than someone living in a conservative fantasy land where Bush is a great military leader, Paul Wolfowitz is a corruption fighter and humanitarian and the War in Iraq somehow makes us safer from terrorists.