With the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate, the McCain campaign seems to hope that the election will hinge upon personality rather than policy, on candidates’ life narratives rather than their 15 point energy plans. Recognizing that they cannot win based on whose policies benefit the largest number of people — Republican health plans and tax cuts not being friendly to the middle class — the grand old party instead appears to be betting that the combination of an academically challenged military man and a moose killing hockey mom will resonate so much with voters that the electorate will ignore their policy proposals.
But it is dangerous to dismiss the Republican ticket as one of personality over policy, because for many voters, policy is inseparable from personality. You see, 15 point plans are inscrutable to most of the general public. For such people, the only way to evaluate such plans is through the lens of a candidate’ s life narrative, by sensing whether the candidate has come to the same conclusion about a topic that the voter would have come to if the voter had had the time to think things through.
Most people don’t have the inclination to become informed about complicated political issues. How should we handle Iran’s nuclear efforts or Russia’s aggression against Georgia? What should our country do about global warming, Medicare costs and the mortgage crisis? With most of our citizens still unable to find Iraq on a map, we can’t expect people to vote for presidential candidates based on the candidate’s vision for how to promote clean coal.
In a complicated world, many voters fall behind the candidate who they believe shares their values, and who comes culturally speaking from a place closest to their own. This explains part of the power of the three G.’s for the Republican Party: God, guns and gays. Ask people to list the most important issues facing the country, and the three G.’s won’t usually come out on top. But even though most voters care more about the economy than about whether to ban assault rifles, many of these same voters don’t have a clue about what the government should do to help the economy. So when two candidates spar over the economy, and one candidate “looks like me” — likes to hunt, say, or goes to a church like mine — whose economic plan am I going to trust?
In trying to identify which candidate thinks most like they think, many people also pay close attention to whether a candidate comes from their preferred party. In this respect, voters are a lot like sports fans. If, for example, the personnel of the Los Angeles Lakers were traded, whole cloth, for that of the Boston Celtics, Celtics fans would quickly embrace Kobe Bryant and his teammates while rooting against Paul Pierce and company. Sports fans are amazingly flexible in their attachment to specific personalities. I’m sure the Dallas fans hated Terrell Owens when he was on the Eagles, put off by his grand standing and poor sportsmanship. But now of course, with their Super Bowl hopes riding on his broad shoulders, most cowboy fans love him. Ultimately sports fans don’t seem to root for athletes as much as they support whoever is wearing the right color jersey. In much the same way, the general public supports the policies of the people in their parties. If George Bush had brought out a tax cut seven years ago that was geared largely towards the middle class, it would have been embraced by most members of his party. But once he settled on the current form of his tax cuts, most of the party faithful were quickly convinced that Bush had chosen the best possible way to cut taxes.
I don’t mean to take this point too far. Boston Celtics fans would still hold nostalgic feelings towards Paul Pierce if he was traded away, and would probably root for him to beat anyone but the Celtics. And voters who identify with the Republican Party will not go along with any policy that a Republican president puts forward. A Republican president who decided to ignore Roe V. Wade when nominating Supreme Court judge would quickly be vilified in the party. But for the hundreds of policies in which people don’t have strong preformed opinions — how to handle Fannie Mae, what to do about the globalization of the economy — the best way to figure out the right policy is for the voter to figure out which candidate is “most like me”.
Thus, we can expect the Republican base to rally behind McCain and the policies he proposes between now and November. And now, with Sarah Palin resonating with the Republican culture of small-town, gun toting individualists, the dismal policies that McCain is proposing could play an even smaller role in influencing people’s voting choices.
To win elections, it is not necessarily enough to favor policies that align with the interests of the middle class, because people in the middle-class won’t necessarily grasp the details of those policies. In saying this, I mean nothing but respect for most voters. It is simply impossible for most people, including myself, to become well-informed about more than a few important political issues.
Obama is right to point out the benefits of his tax cuts for the middle class, especially compared to McCain’s embrace of the Bush tax cuts. His campaign needs to push hard on the issues, showing people that the candidate has real substance behind his otherwise vague hopes. But if people think Obama is an elitist, his policies won’t resonate with them. That’s why Obama has to keep returning to his biography, and must do so in a way that not only sheds the elitist label the Republicans are trying to pin on him, but also emphasizes the commonness of his experiences. They must show that Obama, despite being such an extraordinary person — with an absent father from a foreign country, a long struggle for racial identity, and the brains and hard work to make law review at Harvard — is also like them.
The Obama team appears to be trying to address this issue. That is why we know more about Joe Biden’s train riding habits — knowing the name of each conductor — than about his efforts to promote the partitioning of Iraq a couple years ago. And that’s why those of us who are passionate about policy, and even informed about some policies, can expect to be disappointed by the way both campaigns are run over the next two months. Because both campaigns are likely to turn up the volume on personality and culture. We will see the Republicans work hard to make Obama look like he’s foreign, to make people suspicious about his policies. We can hope Obama counters these attacks with an effort to make himself look more normal, while highlighting the many ways in which the two Republican candidates are far from normal people.
For Obama to win, he needs to convince people that he shares their basic values, and that they can trust him to approach the many challenges of the Oval Office the same way they would approach them if they were forced to engage in the issues of our day.