Friday, April 18, 2008

Issues or character?

On the Kojo Namdi show yesterday, I heard about how some critics were disappointed with the final "debate" between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They were wondering why the questions didn't delve more into the issues so that voters can make informed choices on whom to vote for based on issues.

My 2 cents: Issues are too complex in that there are too many issues for voters to think about - voters have to summarize what is essentially a multidimensional space into a point estimate and use that point estimate to guide them on who is a better candidate based on issues. Voters may be smarter in the sense that they tend to follow the "character" questions more closely because it allows them a way to identify with the candidate. This is the Popkin argument in the "Reasoning Voter". They are waiting for the "always shuck your tamales" moment when everything suddenly crystalizes for them:

"Popkin begins his well-regarded book on the subject, “The Reasoning Voter,” with an example from Gerald Ford’s primary campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1976. Visiting a Mexican-American community in Texas, Ford (never a gaffe-free politician) made the mistake of trying to eat a tamale with the corn husk, in which it is traditionally served, still on it. This ethnic misprision made the papers, and when he was asked, after losing to Jimmy Carter in the general election, what the lesson of his defeat was, Ford answered, “Always shuck your tamales.” Popkin argues that although familiarity with Mexican-American cuisine is not a prerequisite for favoring policies friendly to Mexican-Americans, Mexican-Americans were justified in concluding that a man who did not know how to eat a tamale was not a man predisposed to put their needs high on his list. The reasoning is illogical: Ford was not running for chef, and it was possible to extrapolate, from his positions, the real difference it would make for Mexican-Americans if he were President rather than Reagan or Carter. But Mexican-Americans, and their sympathizers, felt “in their gut” that Ford was not their man, and that was enough."

The candidates are too well coached these days to fall into such a gaffe but it explains why the media fixates on character issues -- because they feel that the readers/viewers/voters want to know these things.

Update: From MR,
Mark Thoma has an An Open Letter to ABC about the Presidential Debate signed by Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, Henry Farrell, Eric Alterman and many others.
"The debate was a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans concerned about the great issues facing the nation and the world.... For 53 minutes, we heard no question about public policy from either moderator. ABC seemed less interested in provoking serious discussion than in trying to generate cheap shot sound-bites for later rebroadcast. The questions asked by Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson were a disgrace..."
I agree. The only thing the signatories got wrong was where to send the letter. The letter should have been addressed to the American public. After all, this debate, which came in the flurry of all the tabloid journalism of the past several weeks, was the most-watched of the 2008 presidential campaign. The public got what it wanted.

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