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Electing the President: How Do You Make Up Your Mind?

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  • Background

    What qualities should one look for in a presidential candidate? Since the advent of television, many Americans seem to have decided that presidents should be selected on the basis of their personality and image: how they come across on television. The way many Americans choose presidents today marks a sharp departure from the past. While personality and image were always important factors, they were usually not decisive until TV came along. Before TV, voters placed a high emphasis on a candidate's resume and political party affiliation.

    In the current polarized political climate party affiliation, to be sure, is still important. But how voters pick their party is different from in the past when economic considerations drove their decision. Today it is often cultural factors that shape a voter's preference for a party rather than, say, membership in a union.

    Studies conducted by the University of Michigan demonstrate that by some measures voters today know less about the issues than their counterparts forty years ago. Several factors are responsible for this decline. Three stand out: (1)television, which transmits emotion well but not information, (2) the weakness of the party system, which formerly helped voters identify particular parties with particular policies, and (3) the collapse of the union movement, which formerly helped educate voters about the issues.

    The role of the media in this decline is unquestionable. The media focus on sound bites, gotcha journalism and personality obscures the issues voters need to understand to make sensible decisions.

    The great journalist and historian Theodore White used to say that presidential elections turned on three issues: war and peace, bread and butter, black and white. No doubt these issues remain important. But today elections are just as likely to turn on media caricatures of the candidates, including such superficial questions as whether they seem comfortable on TV.

    What the Left Says

    Like conservatives, liberals are often drawn to outsiders. But unlike conservatives, they've been more willing to give relatively young candidates a shot at the presidency: John Kennedy, Gary Hart, John Edwards, Barack Obama. Experience has seemed to count less than imagination and charisma. Since Kennedy, Democrats have frequently longed for another Camelot candidate who could inspire change.

    What the Right Says

    Conservatives have tended to shy away from younger candidates, favoring instead party war horses who have already gone around the track a couple of times. Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan won the GOP nomination on their third tries. George H.W. Bush and John McCain won the nomination on their second tries.

    In the postwar period Republicans have been drawn to outsiders and military leaders. They went for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower over Sen. Robert Taft, Gov. Ronald Reagan over Rep. George H.W. Bush, Gov. George W. Bush over Sen. John McCain. Although they nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater, it wasn't because he was a senator so much as because he championed outsiders. Dole and McCain became party nominees because they were war heroes, not because they had served in the Senate.

    While conservatives say that they admire business people, no businessman since Wendell Willkie made it very far as a candidate until Mitt Romney.

    Historical Background

    They knew they didn't want a king. But in creating the office the Founding Fathers knew concretely what they wanted in a president. It was George Washington. They designed the office with him in mind. By their lights Washington was ideal: He was a hero with a long impressive resume. Most importantly, he was above politics. His signature appeal was his oft-stated desire not to be selected as president. He preferred, he insisted, to return to Mount Vernon where he could tend to his farm. His ideal was Cincinnatus, the Roman military hero who returned to his farm after his military career had ended.

    No one who succeeded Washington ever approached his heights before entering office. But the first six presidents fitted the founders' ideal. All had established themselves as outstanding individuals with national reputations and long resumes before their selection as president. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were heroes of the Revolution. James Madison was regarded as a father of the Constitution (though modern historians note that many of the provisions he championed were dropped). James Monroe and John Quincy Adams had distinguished themselves as diplomats. Three of the six had served as secretary of state, which was regarded as a stepping stone to the presidency.

    Then the masses began voting. And once they did the resumes of presidents came to count for a lot less. Instead, voters were drawn to men (all were men) who in one way or another reminded them of themselves either by the way they dressed or talked or had made their way in the world. Unlike Washington, these men could not remain above politics, though most pretended they were.

    Topics for Discussion

  • Would George Washington be able to be "George Washington" in today's political climate?
  • Do voters make rational choices?
  • Should we prefer candidates with long resumes?