Voters often lament that presidential candidates deliberately communicate to the electorate what the electorate wants to hear. Voters complain that candidates are simply weathervanes, afraid to speak their minds and hesitant to let voters know their true feelings for fear of electoral recrimination. They bemoan the propensity for candidates to simply parrot the party line for fear of disaffecting party voters.
There is a good reason for this. American political history is littered with failed presidential candidates who espoused unpopular positions, especially if their positions contravened the views of their party's base. In the political marketplace, it is electorally advantageous for a candidate to take popular positions and to become an echo chamber for their party's constituent groups. When candidates dare to challenge the contemporaneous party orthodoxy, they are often derided by ideological purists as apostates. The politically dexterous candidate avoids episodes where they might get themselves into these predicaments, choosing instead to play it safe and toe the party line.
In 1972, U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson promised "à la Harry Truman to tell it like it is." At a time when most Democrats were indignant about continued U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and wanted to truncate the nation's military expenditures, Jackson's campaign brochure stated that he "wants to bring the troops home from Vietnam as soon as possible, but he wants to give the President of the United States [Republican Richard M. Nixon] a chance to do that in a responsible manner." In addition, Jackson did not toe the party line when it came to cutting the military budget. He said: "But to those who say we must take risks for peace by cutting the meat from our military muscle, I say you are unwittingly risking war." Democratic voters did not cotton to Jackson's message, and instead selected U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) as their party's nominee. McGovern sang from the hymnbook of the Democratic base. McGovern trumpeted withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam along with reducing the nation's Defense budget over a three-year time period.
In 1980, U.S. Representative John Anderson (R-IL) campaigned in the Republican presidential primaries on the need for a 50-cent a gallon hike in the federal gas tax. While Anderson also called for a 50 percent reduction in the Social Security tax, conservative voters (who were the preponderance of the primary voters) were unwilling to consider any semblance of a tax increase. While former California Governor Ronald Reagan (the eventual winner of the primary), ran a Pollyanna-ish campaign, promising both a tax cut and a balanced budget, Anderson admonished a Republican audience in Maine: "The next President will not be able, like the legendary King Canute [a politically astute eleventh century English king] to stretch out his hands and command economic tides to stand still." Where Reagan wooed conservatives with calls for increased defense spending, Anderson warned Republicans to: "not be totally overcome with a new missile madness that yields to the mindless renewal of unrestricted competition in building ever new strategic systems." After failing to convince Republican voters to swallow his medicine, Anderson ran in the general election as an Independent, garnering 6.6 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes.
In 1984, U.S. Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC) chose not to pander to Democratic Primary voters. In fact, he was vociferous in elucidating his unpopular message. In a party known for supporting increased government spending, Hollings called for a spending freeze to reduce the budget deficit. He exclaimed: "Yes, it would hurt. But the sacrifice would be shared equally." In addition, Hollings told a young audience at Dartmouth College: "I want to draft everyone in this room for the good of the country." Not surprisingly, Hollings' message fell on deaf ears. After garnering just 3.5 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Hollings bowed out of the race, jokingly declaring: "Well, nothing happened to me on the way to the White House."
The eventual winner of the Democratic nomination that year was former Vice President Walter Mondale. However, Mondale made the following honest but politically suicidal remark at the Democratic National Convention: "Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes and so will I. He won't tell you, I just did." Mondale lost the general election in a 49-state landslide.
In 1988, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt failed to muster any electoral traction when he tried to convince Democratic voters that fiscal necessity required the nation to means-test Social Security and Medicare. Rather than pander to the party's liberal base, Babbitt called his ideological mindset "radical centrism."
In 1992, former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) made not pandering to his party's core constituencies the altarpiece of his campaign. He told PBS' Jim Lehrer: "I am not locked into the ideology, sort of the class warfare, corporate bashing that Democrats find attractive. That is not me, it has never been me." While espousing liberal views on social issues, Tsongas veered off the traditional Democratic reservation by preaching the gospel of fiscal austerity to achieve a balanced federal budget. Furthermore, Tsongas favored a capital gains tax cut and supported the use of nuclear power, positions which were anathema to many party liberals.
Tsongas tried to use his refusal to pander to his advantage. He called out his chief Democratic primary opponent, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, for advocating a middle class tax cut, which Tsongas maintained the nation could not afford. In addition, Tsongas excoriated Clinton for telling Connecticut primary voters that he would support a scaled back version of the Sea Wolf Nuclear Submarine Program. Tsongas averred: ''It was a cynical attempt to get votes from Connecticut. The American people are just hearing how cynical and unprincipled Bill Clinton is. He knows full well it will never be built."
At a campaign rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Tsongas held up a teddy bear and exclaimed, "This is my opponent, Pander bear." Ironically, some voters watching the event on television thought that he was saying "panda bear" failing to understand why he was calling Bill Clinton a "panda bear."
2008 Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul was the lone dissenter in the primary in opposing not only the U.S. involvement in Iraq, but also the entire interventionist foreign policy of the U.S. government. During a debate, he contended that the 9/11 hijackings were a direct consequence of the U.S. intervening abroad, contending: "They don't come over here to attack us, because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there. I mean what would we think if we -- if other foreign countries were doing that to us?" As a result of this unpopular statement, the Republican audience booed Paul and there was a subsequent movement to exclude the Texas Congressman from future GOP debates.
However, blatant over-pandering can also be an electoral liability. For example, in 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry entered the village grocery store in Buchanan, Ohio and asked store owners Paul and Debra McKnight, "Can I get me a hunting license here?" Kerry bought the license for $140. Though Kerry was actually a hunter, the sight of a Boston patrician speaking in an exaggerated rural dialect was seen by many rural Americans as disingenuous, patronizing and downright insulting.
Along these same lines, in 2007, Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney told a voter: "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life." It was later reveled that Romney had only hunted twice in his life. In an effort to ameliorate the damage, Romney later said: "I'm not a big-game hunter. I've made that very clear. I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will."
While voters may say they want our presidential candidates to say what they think, if the candidates do not offer opinions palatable to voters, the electorate is unlikely to reward them come election day. This is precisely why candidates are reluctant to be candid with voters. It is to their electoral advantage to simply "drink the Kool-Aid" and pander to the voters who will decide their fate at the ballot box. So long as the pandering does not appear too blatant, it is a time-tested operational tactic that, when employed correctly and adroitly, can win the day for a presidential candidate.