Heated presidential elections won’t lead to better policies
Alexander C. Cartwright & Dylan DelliSanti
It only takes about 5 minutes of time in front of a national television station to see some commercials trying to influence your vote or some ‘expert’ political commentators screaming about who’s values are superior in order to conclude that we are witnessing a heated presidential election. Most polls show the candidates nearly neck and neck; many argue that once we account for statistical error, knowing who is actually ahead in the race is nearly impossible. Obama and Romney have their campaigns full speed ahead; not surprisingly, their goals are to get as many votes as possible.
Unlike in a market or on a sports field where competition systematically leads to better performance, competition in elections does not necessarily lead to better policy; in fact, it leads to more of the same.
As politicians seek to maximize votes, they try to appeal to the median voter. In essence, a candidate trying to get the most votes will align his policy view with those of most Americans. Few voters occupy the extreme right or the extreme left; so appealing to either of these extremes is a bad election strategy. Wherever the median voter stands on the issues is where candidates try to align themselves while still trying to be slightly to the left or slightly to the right of their opponent.
Therefore, as the polls tighten and the election becomes more competitive each candidate needs to get all the votes he can- by appealing to the median voter. In other words, the more heated an election, the more similar we see candidates become. Though you could never conclude this from P.A.C sponsored T.V commercials, Romney and Obama have extremely similar, if not identical, stances on many issues.
A quick visit to isidewith.com reveals just how similar the two candidates are. On foreign policy, both candidates think that we should end the war in Afghanistan, we should support Israel, we should support NATO’s effort to contain the Sudanese military, and think that the U.S should not give foreign terrorism suspects constitutional rights. On domestic policy, both support the patriot act, both are against decriminalizing all drugs, against federal regulation of the internet, both say unions and corporations should be able to fund advertising via super PACS.
Even where the two candidates try to highlight their differences, on economic policy, one just wants more government to play a larger role than the other when it comes to economic affairs. For example, Romney favors corporate taxes that are still steep compared to most of the world, progressive income taxes, and massive government spending- just marginally less than Obama. Both want to subsidize U.S farmers, are against raising the Federal Minimum wage, and are in favor of welfare work requirements.
When it comes to social issues, the two still have plenty of similar stances. Both are in favor of the death penalty, both agree that illegal immigrants should not receive government subsidized healthcare, and both think homosexuals should be able to marry in some form.
Of course, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney do differ on a number of issues. The differences are mostly in how government should approach what it does; in few places do they disagree with what government should actually be doing. On almost every issue the candidates disagree on some margin, but the ‘types’ and ‘kinds’ of policies that each wants are similar, most of their differences are in ‘degree.’
Ultimately, very competitive elections set up an interesting paradox. The more competitive the presidential race gets, and the more we are told that we have a ‘clear choice’ between the two candidates, the less this is actually true. More competitive races encourage each candidate to appeal as much as possible to the median voter while still being slightly different from his opponent. So, even if current policies aren’t working, then a more competitive political race doesn’t encourage candidates to take radically different positions or even to dissent, very much, from the status quo.
Even though our debates and political rhetoric seem heated, in the grand spectrum of political ideologies the margins that the candidates are fighting over are probably smaller than we realize, but this is not to say that those are not important margins. However, neither candidate is a clear ‘socialist’ or ‘libertarian.’ One might be slightly more conservative and one slightly more progressive, yet ultimately both are statists. Both candidates face an incentive to appeal to the median voter, which is making them more alike. This incentive doesn’t disappear after the election, which should make us skeptical about just how different public policy would be if a new President were to take office.
The new President is likely to be only marginally different than before, especially as election’s become more competitive. So just as sending an eloquently written e-mail to a congressman is likely to be met with a generic response, investing your scarce time and effort into the election will only be met by Presidential candidates striving to be generic – regardless of the rhetoric they use. Rather than worrying about the results of this election and allowing ourselves to be divided over artificial lines, we should instead call into question the foundations of our democracy.