When Campaigns Lie, What Should the Voters Do?
Now that both campaigns have lost all of their credibility by distorting each others records and agendas, where does the 2008 presidential contest stand?
[IMGCAP(1)]I dont have data on this, but Im willing to bet that at this point in the race most voters dont believe anything that they see or hear in Sen. Barack Obamas (Ill.) and Sen. John McCains (Ariz.) TV ads, or from talking heads supporting the candidates. I know that I dont.
Im tired of the bizarre distortions and half-truths, and of the endless platitudes. McCain, the straight-talker, isnt doing that anymore, and Obama is equally bad. Both are running blatantly misleading campaigns.
So when I see an ad, the first thing I think about is how it might be a distortion. McCain wants the war in Iraq to last at least 100 years? Obama wants to teach sex ed to kindergartners? McCains Social Security plan would have cost senior citizens all of their retirement savings? Obama wants to raise everyones taxes?
How stupid do they think we are? Pretty stupid, apparently.
Campaign distortions are nothing new, of course. But maybe its the length of this campaign or, more likely, the fact that both Obama and McCain promised that they were different that makes this campaign so painful to watch.
If most people react to the charges and counter-charges as I do and my travels around the country speaking to various groups reinforce my belief that they do then how are people making decisions about the election?
First, voters are falling back on preconceived notions and stereotypes, the strongest of which remains the viewers partisan bent. Not surprisingly, polls show Republican voters are backing McCain, while Democrats are supporting Obama. When in doubt, cast your usual party vote.
In addition, voters are falling back on the intangibles of image, bio and mood.
McCain is the older guy who has been in government for almost three decades, so many voters see him as experienced, steadier, more reliable. Democrats, on the other hand, see him as part of the past.
Obama is younger and looks much younger than his opponent, and his governmental service is much shorter. Democrats view him as having new ideas and offering hope for the future. Republicans regard him as inexperienced and dangerously ill- prepared to serve in the nations top job.
And then there is race, which we are not supposed to talk about because it makes all of us very uncomfortable. But it, too, is a vote cue.
Many voters see an African-American politician and immediately pigeonhole him as a liberal who favors higher taxes, increased domestic spending, gun control and abortion rights and would pursue a generally left-of-center agenda.
This shouldnt be surprising given that most of the most visible African-American political figures over the past few decades (though certainly not all) have been on the Democratic Partys left and represented positions (including affirmative action) that many white voters dont identify with.
I recently met a terrific African-American Congressional candidate from Louisiana, state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. (D), who is one of my favorite candidates this cycle. Hes personable, understands politics and, I expect, is going to lose.
You see, Cravins is black. He is a Democrat. He attended an Obama event during the Democratic primary. So, even though Cravins says hes pro-life and pro-gun and describes himself as a conservative Democrat, I believe that most white voters in Louisianas 7th district, who are currently quite content to be represented by Republican Rep. Charles Boustany, will see him as just another black Democrat, and theyll read a lot into that.
Because Cravins isnt likely to be able to introduce himself well enough during the campaign to overcome stereotypes, many conservative white voters will look at him and think of Obama or embattled Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson (D) or even the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Unfair, you say? Voters shouldnt judge a candidate by his skin color. Maybe, but is it any more unfair than, for example, saying that because McCain and President Bush are both Republicans that a McCain administration would produce a third Bush term? No, it isnt.
One vote cue is based entirely on party, while the other is based on a combination of factors that leads voters to end up at the same place.
When voters dont believe anything the candidates say, theyll use these familiar vote cues to figure out which candidate they prefer.
I believe that voters are already to this point, and thats why the presidential contest is moving in a narrow range. The fundamentals of the election still work in Obamas favor, since change is such a strong force this cycle and the financial crisis has benefited the Democrat.
As we saw last week, news real news, not controversies manufactured by the campaigns does have an impact on how people will vote since it can play to the candidates stereotypes.
This election could well turn on those voters who feel cross-pressured on the vote cues Ive referred to. They may prefer Obamas party but infer things about him because of his age and experience, or his race that they find troubling.
For many of these older, working-class voters (we used to call them Reagan Democrats), their votes will be determined on which stereotype they like, or fear, more. Frankly, given the quality of the two campaigns, I cant really blame them regardless of their eventual choice.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.