Choosing a Presidential Candidate

I should be grading, preparing new lectures, or otherwise tackling a productive task. But I seem to know a surprising number of swing voters (albeit none living in swing states). So I want to suggest a few things to keep in mind when choosing a presidential candidate.


1) You are voting for a party as much as a president. Any president in the modern era owes his election to the party and can be expected to continue listening to party officials and activists after gaining office. What much of the writing about “the real Romney” (or “the real Obama” for that matter) misses is how little the individual president actually matters, at least in ways that we can determine ahead of time. The fact is that both the Executive Branch and the president’s White House staff are collectively far more important than the individual at the top when it comes to shaping the future of U.S. policy. The president chooses those people from among his own party and they usually represent the broad interests of the party as a whole at the time of the election.

The Obama administration is a good example of this. When Obama took office some commentators noted how many former Clinton people there were and how many Chicagoans.  But, of course, those were really Obama’s only two choices  You get to those levels of government only by (a) serving in the previous party administration or (b) serving in the successful campaign. If Romney is elected president, expect to see the same: plenty of lower-level Bush administration officials and Romney campaign staff.


2) Campaign promises matter, including those made during the primary season. The political science/historical research suggests that candidates actually do try to carry out their campaign promises. There are multiple explanations for this:

  • They may genuinely mean and believe in them.
  • They believe this is necessary in order to get reelected.
  • The same party pressures that prompted the promises continue after the election.

Whatever the reasoning, candidates do try to follow through. And part of the point (especially in the primaries) for interests groups to try to force promises by politicians is that they really do have some force afterwards. So don’t self-justify your vote by thinking to yourself, “Well, he had to say that to get elected, but he doesn’t really mean it.” Whether he meant it or not, the promise made is likely to shape future policy commitments.


3) Presidents have far less control over the economy than we usually think. I wrote about a version of this in my frustration with one of the Republican presidential debates: The Magical Presidency. We have an idea, often peddled by candidates on either side of the aisle, that the president is responsible (for good or ill) for the state of the economy. That’s just not the case. Government spending and regulation must almost all pass through the Congress, over which the president has only tangential influence. Even then, there’s a big difference between short- and long-term impact of such policies. One-off actions in crisis (like not raising the debt ceiling) can have a dramatic immediate affect. But the larger and longer-term health of the economy is almost always out of the president’s hands. Any direct impact is unlikely to be apparent until much later.

For example, Clinton gets a lot of credit for a good economy and budget during his term. But his term also saw deregulation that ultimately contributed to the 2007 meltdown. Bush’s tax cuts and wars contributed to a budget deficit that only really began blooming under Obama. The short term impact of Obama’s stimulus is still in some dispute but the longer-term consequences for the shape of federal spending is only beginning to become clear.

If you’re looking for a president who can “fix” the economy, you’re likely to be disappointed. Better (in my moderate view) to vote for the candidate whose economic principles are in line with your own sense of “fairness” on tax and spending issues. Back to point 2, presidents are likely to try to follow through on the priorities they favor now because (point 1) they’ll be responding to the same pressure groups after the election. So by all means vote on that basis. Just don’t expect that one of the other candidate has in their back pocket a magic wand for fixing the economy in January 2013.

2 Responses to Choosing a Presidential Candidate
  1. Jared
    October 10, 2012 | 12:23 pm

    I’m one of those folks in a state that Romney will win with ease. I guess I have the luxury of being able to send a message and vote for someone like Gary Johnson since I’m not all that keen on either of the major candidates. Regardless how I vote, it won’t mean anything.

    The bit at the end of point 3 regarding voting along the lines of your own (I imagine that can be expanded outside of just tax and spend beliefs) reminded me of something I heard on local talk radio. Basically, voters who had made up their mind took one of those tests on the issues and were matched with candidates (all of them). Many were more in line with some of these distant candidates than either of the big two. If everyone were to do this (and it gets into a bigger issue about general voter knowledge on the subjects they claim to hold dear) we’d see a much different outcome I imagine.

    Say I wasn’t living in AZ, but in OH or FL. My vote for Johnson would be silly in a way. Is it better to vote for candidate A who you agree on 5 points out of 20 compared to candidate B where it’s 3 out of 20, because those are the only two who can win (when candidate C, with no chance, you’re on the same page half the time)?

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012 | 3:47 pm

      Since you aren’t in a swing state it won’t matter that you vote for a third-party candidate. But precisely for that reason, it also won’t send any meaningful message. Unless the Gary Johnson votes make up a large enough percentage to swing the state between the two major candidates, no one will care how large that vote was. Your vote will remain irrelevant. If, however, you vote for Obama and it turns out that the vote was closer than expected, someone will notice and you’re more likely to see the state become competitive in the future (because the parties will contest it more often and vigorously). A vote for Johnson will, if anything, only dilute the message you are trying to send because the “pox on both your houses” message just isn’t one that either party cares about. There’s no immediate institutional reason for them to heed that message.

      If everyone voted for candidates who actually came closest to their own views, we would have some different outcomes. But we have a system (winner-take-all, single-member districts) that favors two parties. So a highly fractured presidential electorate would create more chaos than reason. As I’ve suggested to others, what we really need is a robust legislative- and congressional-level third party movement. Only with independents in congress would any of the non-majority-party presidential candidates have a shot at accomplishing anything substantive once in office.