Every four years there comes a time in our country when 50 or 60% of Americans of voting age vote for a president based on their perceptions on the candidates. These perceptions come from lots of places and are formed a number of different ways. According to the last two elections people just vote on geographical party lines: if you live near an ocean or a freshwater ocean you are a red state to distinguish yourself from the water, and if you don't live near water you are a blue state to demonstrate that obviously this blue part is the land. It will be interesting to see if this changes in 2008 and who can win the most swing states in '08 (according to Wikipedia's article, there are 14 current swing states. In 2004, of those states, Bush won 8 - Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Florida - while Kerry won 6 - Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves because we have primaries to worry about, although always keeping in mind the primaries are very much influenced by who we think can win the general election, where the potential to win swing states should be a huge factor.
So, apart from electibility in the general election, which I think is determined by who wins the New Hampshire primary (which is determined by who wins the Iowa Caucus), what is influencing people's votes in the primaries? This is a complicated issue but I don't think too many people will argue with me when I claim that the primaries are heavily influenced by money, which is heavily influenced by name recognition and, of course, money. This is a big problem, and I blame the media. Unless you make the effort that I am not comfortable assuming that all voters are making, you get all of your info from the media and all you are going to have learned form themknow about the candidates right now is two things. First, that Hillary, Obama, McCain, and Giuliani are on TV a lot, either getting mentioned or actually being shown interviewed or speaking. So there you have your name recognition, which is a self fulfilling (mothman) prohpesy because people will assume that they are the best candidates and vote for them just because they are familiar with them. Unfortunately the these four are only getting so much more attention because they have been in the spotlight in the past and the other candidates haven't, and this of course says nothing about what kind of president they would be. The second thing most people know now thanks to the media is that Hillary and Romney raised the most money in the most recent money count. Are you freaking kidding me with this? Sure, it can be seen as a proxy for how many supporters they have right now, but this is really dangerous because fundraising is so dependent on name recognition and how much money you have to put together a good fundraising campaign, which, again says nothing about what kind of a president you would be. Despite this, fundraising is used as a proxy not only for how many supporters the candidates have, but also for how good they are as candidates, because everyone likes a winner, perhaps regardless of what kind of competition that they've won (this is also why winning the party nomination is so dependent on Iowa (Yeearrrrgh) and New Hampshire).
The other reason why the media is determining so much is that they pick up the slack for the candidates. Putting aside the fact that the media do a horrible and actually could do a much better job at this, let's not let the candidates off the hook so easily. For several reasons (for starters take the fact that America is such a large country with diverse opinions and the fact that it has more potential than any other country to carry out various potential projects and ideas, of which there are approximately eleventy billion), political campaigns have become an exercise in talking a lot and saying little or nothing of substance. This is partly because if you say anything that gives away an actual opinion the media will replay it over and over again (partly because you would be the first to do so (IE to give them news!) and also becuase yearrghhh), but also because this is just how the system has come to function: because of the diversity of opinions among the huge number of voters, politicians beleive they can maximize support by being vague and not committing themselves too much on particular policy ideas for difficult (is there any other kind) isses.
The result is that we are informed that all of the candidates want to win in Iraq and bring the troops back ASAP, and all of the candidates want a strong economy with more jobs, and all of the candidates want to improve education and health care, etc. They all agree on most of the ends (or, at least, the ones that they think that are most important to the voters), however this turns into all that they talk about, and they tend no to go into much detail on the means, to a point where they will often all agree on the means as well because they are not being very specific. So how are we supposed to choose? I'm not going to lie, I'm not really sure. One way is, even if the candidates are giving the same answers, to pay attention to how they give them. A wise man once said "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." For instance, compare "she had a crack baby" to "she had a crack, baby." In other words one would have to read or listen to the candidates discussing the various issues and then compare and contrast, and decide who you felt sounded the most sincere and knowledgeable and capable when discussing what they want to do and why/how they can do it. This, again is what I am not comfortable in assuming that most of the voters are going to do. This should not be too shocking since we all lead busy lives nowadays, but it should be troubling because these are big decisions to be made. Unfortunately, many people are probably just tuning into the news every now and then, and then watching the debates, where, again, the candidates don't give us much info (to combine the horrors of the media with those of the vague candidates, the media then gives us statistics on who won the debates -- PEOPLE SHOULD DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
So I think it's clear that we all need to admit that we have a responsibility to be better informed. Call it a responsibility as an American, a responsibility as a human in society, an ethical responsibility, a moral responsibility, William Jennings Bryan, William Tell, whoever. Of course, this isn't easy either, and requires a lot of effort. One place I'd like to start is the candidates web sites on the issues. As I said, they all come to similar conclusions on the issues (except for the traditional democratic-republican splits on certain things), but maybe you can make a judgment just based on what issues these guys (and girl!) put up on their web sites, and also how they phrase them. So here are the issues that each candidate chose to give you their opinion on via their web site.
Winning the War on Terror
Government Spending, Lower Taxes and Economic Prosperity
Human Dignity & the Sanctity of Life
Lobbying & Ethics Reform
The Consequences of Failure in Iraq
Stewards of our Nation's Rich National Heritage
Protecting Second Amendment Rights
Defeating the Jihadists
Competing with Asia
America's Culture and Values
Iraq: A Way Forward
Afghanistan and Darfur
Access to Higher Education
Preparing for College
Energy and the Environment
Leadership on Iraq
Jobs and the Economy
Honestly I cannot find Clinton's "Issues" part of her web site and I'm not sure whether there is one!
Strengthening America Overseas
Plan to End the Iraq War
Cleaning up Washington's Culture of Corruption
Meeting America's Energy Needs
Honoring our Veterans
Improving our Schools
Creating a Healthcare System that Works
Protecting our Homeland
Strengthening Families and Communities
Protecting the Right to Vote
Reconciling Faith and Politics
National Security/Foreign Policy
So there is a starting point. And finally a word about my personal opinions and in reference to the title of this article. I think I will probably vote for one of the Democrats although I haven't ruled out some of the Republicans, so, since this is a blog, and blogs are for non-experts to air their personal opinions on issues they don't fully understand, I will do so. As I mentioned, the media is already shaping the primaries and thus the general election, and they are simplifying the Democratic primary down to Hillary-Obama, which is unfortunate. Personally I am thoroughly unimpressed with Hillary, and I am very impressed with Obama, although I am equally if not more impressed with Dodd, Edwards, Richardson and Biden. These three are incredibly smart guys and the pundits and the media as well as us when we discuss politics in our personal time ignore these three at our own and our nation's peril. For reasons including but not limited to experience, I think it makes much more sense to have one of those guys as the Presidential nominee, and they will then do well to choose Obama as their running mate. Maybe Barack can be VP for 8 years - he can still speak for our country and have an influence in shaping policy, and then he will be ready to be President in 2016.