With the election a mere year and a half away, all sorts of people are making the mistake of viewing all of politics through the narrow lens of election outcomes.
Here are three examples.
1. The other day I received the following email from Maggie Astor, political reporter at the International Business Times:
I’m writing an article for International Business Times (ibtimes.com) on a new feature that the White House just announced, in which anybody will be able to submit a petition on the White House website, and petitions that gather 5,000 signatures or more will get an official review and response from the Obama administration. It seems clear that it’s an effort to appear more in touch with and accountable to voters before next year’s election, and I’m interested in how effective it’s likely to be. I have just a couple questions, and if you could email me back sometime today (Thursday), it would be very helpful. The responses don’t need to be long. Please also feel free to pass this along to a colleague if you think he or she would be better able to respond.
1. Do you think the new petition feature is likely to increase Obama’s approval ratings or his chances of reelection, all other factors being equal? Why or why not?
2. One of the Republican primary candidates’ biggest criticisms of Obama has been that he is “out of touch” with voters. Do you think the new petition feature is a direct attempt to address these criticisms? Do you think it could be effective? Why or why not?
I replied that I don’t think this will have much effect on Obama’s chances for reelection. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing because it’s a good idea in itself, not because of any such political goals. Whether or not this program is intended to have any election-winning effects, I think it makes sense to evaluate it more directly.
2. On September 8th, Josh Tucker, a political scientist and one of my co-bloggers on The Monkey Cage, asked, “How Much Does the Republican Nominee Matter?”, writing that he wanted “to throw out a provocative question: how much does it actually matter whom the Republicans nominate?”
My response here is twofold. First, the evidence is that political extremism might cost a presidential candidate about 1 or 2 percentage points of the vote. (Political scientist Steven Rosenstone wrote about this in his 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections, where he argued that, contrary to what some disaffected Democrats wanted to believe, Ted Kennedy would’ve done even worse than Jimmy Carter in the 1980 general election.) But my second point is that, yes, it could matter a lot who the Republican nominee is in 2012. The new president can have a big impact on all sorts of policies. In his phrasing, Tucker was making the common slip of assuming that all that matters is which party wins the election and forgetting about policy after the election has been decided.
3. After John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2012, a reporter asked me what were good rules for picking a vice-presidential nominee. Is it better to get a moderate to snag the independent vote, or to shore up the base? What about geographic and ethnic balance? Or is the best strategy to pick someone from a large swing state? My response was that the VP nominee doesn’t have much effect on the election outcome—to the extent it does, you’re best off with a moderate with appeal in Florida or Ohio–and your best bet is to pick a person who you think would be a good president. The VP choice is actually one of the few major decisions a presidential candidate has to make which has more (potential) influence on policy than on the election.
As the election season heats up, let’s remember that policies matter, and personalities can matter for policy, whether or not they affect electability. Even if a policy is designed for purely “political” reasons, it can still make sense to think about its direct effects. If you’re a journalist, writing from the perspective of a political consultant might feel sophisticated but it doesn’t always make sense. When writing or thinking about politics, try letting your ideal be Jim Baker or James Schlesinger rather than Mark Penn or Karl Rove.