Stuck on a hilltop in Washington D.C., the school I attend seems to act as both an institution of higher learning and a political incubator. Partisan organizations on campus not only talk about the important issues at hand but also invite members of Congress, reporters, and Cabinet members to weigh in. The Georgetown College Democrats and Georgetown College Republicans recently worked together to bring Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) to conduct a mock presidential debate. Students recently invited the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross to campus where he talked about the implications of the Arab Spring.
It's a general rule of thumb not to ask students here about their political views unless you're prepared for an hour-long discussion between classes. Most students regularly read political blogs and a recent measure pushed for by students allows for hundreds of daily newspapers to be dropped off at various locations around campus at 7 a.m. They're gone by 9 a.m. So like the rest of America, Georgetown students are paying close attention to the issues that each presidential candidate stands for as Election Day draws near. Many students on campus are appalled at Romney's recent shuffles to the center and label him a pathological flip-flopper. But as a Government major at Georgetown, I'm realizing more and more just how little those political stances should matter.
In fact, casting my vote for the President of the United States will probably have nothing to do with a candidate's political opinion. Before I can elaborate, it's important to understand a few basic tenets that relate to how the American political system works:
Presidential candidates will always flip-flop on the issues.
Obama and Guantanamo. Romney and the Bush tax cuts. Obama and executive privilege. Romney and "Don't ask, don't tell." Obama and torture. Romney and global warming. Obama and campaign finance. Romney and gun control. Obama and NASA. Romney and stem cell research. Obama and military tribunals. Romney and abortion. Obama and immigration. Romney and immigration. Obama and gay marriage. Romney and gay marriage. During the presidential debate on October 3rd, Obama juggled stories of Americans that need help with anecdotes that the economy's doing fine, and now Romney has a brand new tax plan. Surprised?
Presidential candidates target a very specific kind of voter: the one that hasn't made up his or her mind.
The entire presidential campaign revolves around winning only about 10% of people over. It's a statement that might sound ridiculous at first glance. After all, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are firing ad campaigns at every one of us, right? Looking at politics from a macro level reveals a different story.
The numbers of Democratic voters to Republican voters have been relatively even in recent history with the current ratio being 34.2% to 36.8% as of October 1st according to Rasmussen Reports. These figures fluctuate by a few percentage points on average from year to year. Depending on voter turnout, these votes are generally a wash due to the relatively even ratio of Democrats to Republicans. Studies have shown that most Democrats are voting for the Democratic candidate and most Republicans are voting for the Republican candidate in increasing numbers. In his book, Culture War? (2006), Stanford University Professor Morris Fiorina presents data calculated from the National Election Studies that shows "more evidence of increasing emotional polarization" in recent decades (pages 68-69, second edition). Fiorina writes, "Democratic activists and strong partisans like generic liberals and dislike generic conservatives more than generations ago, and Republican activists and strong partisans feel just the opposite, but we see the same general pattern of polarization at the top which fades out as partisan commitment declines" (page 69, second edition). Earlier evidence presented by Fiorina may suggest that "partisan commitment" takes a full stop with only about 10% of the population. While roughly 35-40% of people in America are independent, Fiorina writes that 25% percent of the population "profess independence but admit to leaning toward a party." He writes in a footnote on the same page, "The remaining 10 percent of Americans deny any leaning toward either party" (pages 67-68, second edition). Fiorina is not alone. Political scientists Alan Abramowitz at Emory University and John Petrocik at the University of Missouri-Columbia conducted research that concludes much the same thing: most independents are "closet partisans," and truly independent voters make up only 10-15% of the electorate. When you account for those independents who don't show up at the polls, the number is just under 10%.
So even most independents tend to vote for one side or the other. A very small percentage of Americans are genuinely undecided about who they vote for. Some analysts think that these voters consist of politically uninformed citizens for the most part: your every day John Smith that doesn't really read up on politics but votes anyway. Ironically, it's the small group of Americans that couldn't care less about who wins that shifts the presidential balance one way or the other. (This is why negative campaign ads are so effective. For someone who is uninformed, listening to why the other presidential candidate is the worst for 15 seconds before an internet video clip starts may be the only information that individual has to vote off of.)
So why do presidential candidates flip-flop?
Because they have to. Flip-flopping, or "evolving" as a candidate might put it, is one of the best tactics out there for reaching that uninformed 10%. Presidential contenders grab hold of the popular opinion polls, formulate new stances around those numbers and cling to them for dear life. New York Times columnist David Brooks talked about the importance of repositioning on the campaign trail in a video recorded during the height of the etch-a-sketch controversy, saying, "That's what most candidates do. I mean it's one of those gaffes where you tell the truth." In that same interview, syndicated columnist Mark Shields commented on how presidential candidates transition after primaries. "The natural move is to grow to the middle."
When a political candidate opens his or her mouth, I can't tell truth from fiction because each sentence is part of a political chess game to win votes. But one of them has to be president. So here's how I pick:
1. Don't place much emphasis on a presidential candidate's promises.
Flip-flopping isn't one of those things reserved only for those who are bad decision makers. It's actually a carefully calculated strategy used by every presidential candidate to appeal to a broader audience of Americans. It's a necessary part of getting elected president. But as a voter, this leaves me in a position where I can no longer judge where each candidate truly stands because what they say and promise is solely to get votes.
Not surprisingly, presidents have a history of abandoning their campaign promises. George H.W. Bush said, "Read my lips: nonew taxes" but had to raise taxes anyway. Bill Clinton promised that gays would be able to openly serve in the military, but his new policy still stated that homosexuals were not allowed to openly serve. George W. Bush said he would expand the maximum of Pell education grants by more than 50% but failed at doing so.
The reality is that it's not very likely that presidential candidates will be able to implement many of their promised new policies anyway because the president has very little legislative power. He or she can neither make nor introduce laws. Because the president can only sign laws that have been passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, much of his or her political power on domestic issues is dependent on whether Congress is willing to cooperate.
All these factors compounded, I dismiss most of what a presidential candidate promises on the campaign trail when I cast my vote. Rick Perry's slip-up (oops...) meant nothing to me because I knew that the same thing could have happened to all of the other presidential candidates on stage. Any one of them could have forgotten a false promise or two that they were making at the podium. While the lapse was insignificant to me, it unfortunately meant a lot more to the American people so Perry suffered tremendous public backlash.
2. Look beyond bickering by the media about who has the most experience for the job.
I discount experience as a factor because, unless you're Herman Cain, it honestly doesn't matter. James Buchanan, widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in history, served 10 years in the House and over 10 years in the Senate. Abraham Lincoln, the man we named a 99 feet tall monument after, served only 2 years in the House before he was elected president. If you're a serious candidate, you're usually someone who has already shown that you know how to get things done in Washington. Both governors and members of Congress who have completed a term in office have a good sense of how the political landscape works.
I also keep in mind that the most important job of the president is to steer America in the right direction. This goal is something that transcends partisan politics. I assume that regardless of a candidate's political views and constituents, when at the helm, the candidate will do what he or she thinks makes America a more powerful force in the international arena.
3. Examine the candidates's general attitude and manner of approaching problems.
A president who looks at problems in the right frame of mind will manage the country better than a president with a bad affect, regardless of what political views he or she holds. A candidate's take on abortion, religion or tax policy doesn't really matter all that much to me if he or she doesn't know how to avoid controversy or getting nuked.
In his book, The Presidential Character (1972), James Barber writes that one can judge the success of a future president if the voter understands certain elements of his or her upbringing. He creates a character judgment system based on two factors. The first one is whether the candidate brings passive or active energy to the post. The second is whether the candidate views his or her job as president in a positive or negative way. Barber believes that the best presidents are active-positives because these individuals both enjoy the work they do and approach each problem with a positive outlook. He writes of active-positives, "There is a congruence, a consistency, between being very active and the enjoyment of it, indicating relatively high self-esteem and relative success in relating to the environment" (page 9, fourth edition). The worst presidents are active-negatives because they are full of energy and ambition but use that enthusiasm in ways that might be categorized as domineering or compulsive. Barber writes, "Active-negative types pour energy into the political system, but it is an energy distorted from within" (page 9, fourth edition).
Does this theory work in practice? You bet. Barber categorized Richard Nixon as an active-negative in the first edition of his book before Watergate broke. As early as 1969, three years before Watergate, Barber warned the American Political Science Association, "The danger is that Nixon will commit himself irrevocably to some disastrous course of action. This is precisely the possibility against which he could defend himself by a stylistic adjustment in his relations with his White House friends."
4. Look at the candidate's natural intelligence.
Economic success of the country is important just like healthcare, immigration and other pressing matters of 2012. But it's idiotic to think that I, as an individual voter, have all the answers that will lead to success. Thus, I don't pick a president based on my own opinions on the issues. It's like selecting the most likable pilot to fly a plane instead of the person with the most skill and ability. Even if I hate my pilot, I would rather have a pilot who completely disagrees with me but is good at flying planes (and more likely to keep me safe) rather than a pilot who I can sympathize with but is more likely to crash and burn. Picking a president is similar except that a lot more people get screwed if he or she does a bad job.
What really matters is a leader's ability to wrap his or her head around an issue as fast as possible and make the right decisions for America in crisis. I think back to the Suez crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, and I picture each candidate right in the thick of it. Does this candidate have the innate intelligence to handle every variable that's being thrown at him or her in such a time of emergency and still be able to make the right move that puts America on top? There are only two ways of knowing: create a world calamity for each presidential contender or look at each candidate's IQ score.