Pass the Pundits
First, a look at how Americans tend to select their elected leaders is warranted. Contrary to the expectations of policy wonks like myself, most voters maintain only a rudimentary understanding of candidates' issue positions. For instance, a study of the 2000 election focused on the policy differences between then-Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore as it pertained to the budget surplus that existed at the time (remember those days?). Bush advocated tax cuts to return excess revenues to their original source, while Gore sought to solidify the Social Security Trust Fund by allocating surplus revenues into a proverbial "lock box" where Congress could not get their "greasy hands" upon it. A majority of voters sided with Gore on the issue, but of those who said this issue determined their eventual voting decision, a majority actually cast their ballot for Bush. A contradiction, for sure, and evidence that Americans, even when they do consider the issues in their ultimate electoral decision, work in an arena of incomplete information, making themselves vulnerable to error.
On another level, most of us side with one political party or the other across election cycles. True, a sizable percentage of the American electorate does not identify with either party, but even this demographic divides itself fairly predictably between the two major parties. Political party labels, among other things, simplify electoral decisions for the vast majority of the population without the time to swim in the waters of policy nuance. Our preferences tend to line up along an ideological continuum from left to right, liberal to conservative. The Democratic Party lies to the left of the median, Republicans to the right. For example, those who favor unrestricted access to abortion also tend to support more expansive government programs to combat poverty and oppose preemptive war. The modern Democratic Party encompasses each of these policy positions and represents a short cut for those in general agreement with these principles and others.
Until the recent resurgence of polarized politics in Washington and across the country, many political scientists were writing about the end of partisanship and a shift toward candidate-centered campaigns. Candidates themselves eschewed party labels and instead looked to establish their own brands. Parties have returned to strength, but their resurrection did little to diminish the personality-focused campaigns that evolved during their two-decade hiatus. One need look no further than the reform-oriented themes of the two presumptive 2008 presidential nominees. In this bent, the personalities of individual candidates matter as voters evaluate who most shares their values. The heavy weight prize fight between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination epitomized this process as the two candidates were close on policy and could be distinguished only on personality and experience.
Speaking to the latter, candidates are apt to ape their qualifications for the job, contrasting their credentials with those of their opponent(s). Clinton made this the premise of her campaign, and McCain is likely to do the same against the relative newcomer in Obama. The junior Illinois senator made a fairly sophisticated argument that personal judgment is what matters most, not Washington experience. Indeed, he is rekindling the familiar outsider theme, running against K Street lobbyists and the Beltway more generally. McCain, despite his lengthy congressional career, will argue that he has long attempted to slay the dragon, that he is a reformer with results.
On a larger level, independent of the candidates running for office, political scientists have long debated the degree to which voters make prospective or retrospective evaluations prior to casting their ballot. Prospective voting is arguably more sophisticated as it requires citizens to learn the issue positions of individual candidates, to examine their qualifications, and predict who is most likely to deliver the policies most favorable to them personally.
Retrospective voting, on the other hand, is a simpler evaluation, because it requires knowledge of neither issue positions nor personal qualifications, but instead, an assessment of the performance of the incumbent party. More specifically, they answer the question that Ronald Reagan posed to voters in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Political scientists have gone so far as to create models to predict election outcomes independent of what candidates bear their respective party mantles. Relevant to these equations are economic growth or lack thereof, whether or not the nation is at war, and if so, the number of American casualties in battle, the popularity rating of the current president, and the number of terms the incumbent party has held the White House. On each of these measures, the Republicans are at a decided disadvantage this cycle. The economy stumbles along with anemic growth, more than 4,000 Americans have lost their lives in an unpopular war in Iraq, Bush languishes with the lowest approval rating in modern history, and the GOP has held the presidency for two consecutive terms.
This does not necessarily spell defeat for McCain this November, however, as Al Gore was projected to win comfortably by these measures in 2000 and of course lost in a disputed contest decided by the Electoral College. In 2004, Bush was supposed to cruise to victory, too, but instead survived the closest shave in history for an incumbent president reelected. The fact that McCain is competitive with Obama in most public opinions polls at this juncture, not to mention the head-to-head matchups in key swing states, has to be comforting for the senior Arizona senator.
These musings in mind, I return to the issue analysis I am introducing here. This ten-part series will feature detailed analysis of the policy positions held by McCain and Obama. The hope is to shed light on key issues so that readers can enter the polling station better armed to make an informed decision. While I don't dismiss the importance of personal qualities, professional qualifications, even the performance of the incumbent party and president, I do believe that there is a place for policy analysis, and also that voters possess the sophistication to sort through this information and make educated decisions.
My ten issue comparisons are based on a Gallup Poll conducted from February 8-10, 2008. The organization asked voters what issues were most important in determining their vote for president. Fourteen issues received the support of at least a quarter of those surveyed, and I took the liberty of consolidating them into ten areas for further analysis. They read, in order, from the war in Iraq, to the economy, which also encompasses the budget deficit and taxes. Government corruption follows, along with terrorism, health care, and energy coupled with the environment. The final four posts will tackle education, moral values, entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare), and immigration.