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Personality, Issue, and Identity Voting

Have you decided who you’re going to vote for on November 4th? If you have, what are the reasons for your choice?

I am no social statistician, but even from my limited interactions with voters I am continually amazed at the seeming lack of thought that goes into their decision on whom to support. Howard Stern, in all his cultural punditry, recently aired a very insightful clip [www.youtube.com] where his associate Sal walked around New York City asking people who they supported for President. Instead of simply moving on to the next person after receiving an answer, Sal then listed a few “policies” of the chosen candidate, and asked if the interviewee supported those policies as well. Invariably, the individual said yes. The only problem is that every single “policy” Sal mentioned was a position taken by the opposing candidate, the one the interviewee did not choose.

Obviously, this begs the question whether the American people vote for the personality or the issue. Framed in that manner, I’m afraid that a vast portion of American voters decide whom to vote for based on some calculus that has nothing at all to do with the positions each candidate supports. But is that a bad thing? A point that came out in the second presidential debate is very relevant here. One of the biggest challenges that face a presidential candidate is the unknown. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, let alone a year, two years, four years from now. We entrust our Chief Executive with the authority of the office not only because of their campaign platform, but because of their judgment. In that sense, personality [www.slate.com] is just as much an issue as the economy and the war. And why shouldn’t it be? While it may seem less “intellectual” to discuss personality over policy, both are just as important.

In my opinion, the problem comes when American voters move beyond personality and start voting merely by identity. My fear is that many African-Americans will vote for Obama because he is African-American, not because they think his policies are better for them. My fear is that many veterans will vote for McCain because he is a veteran, not because they believe his position on national security is stronger. Voters have to be informed. They have to think about the ramifications of their actions.

Thankfully, there are groups out there that are trying to increase awareness and informed social responsibility. Glass Booth [glassbooth.org] is a great website that lets you choose which positions you support and lets you weight their importance. Then, the site breaks down your positions and which candidate aligns most with what you believe. The concept is not entirely novel, but the site provides an accessible medium that accurately reflects your personal ideologies. Obviously, this site omits personality considerations, but it is still a step in the right direction, helping conscientious citizens make responsible decisions.

Historically, what we are seeing right now is nothing new. From the Jacksonian populists and the earliest days of our nation’s history, to the FDR years, to the Reagan Administration, Americans have always voted for the personality as often as they vote for the issues that personality supports. Nevertheless, just because identity politics have been part of our national experience from day one, that does not mean we can just sit back and vote willy nilly with no method to our madness. American voters owe it to themselves to be informed. Whether they vote for the personality or the policy, they have a social duty to know why they are voting.