Monday, September 29, 2008

When Campaigns Lie, What Should the Voters Do?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Now that both campaigns have lost all of their credibility by distorting each other’s records and agendas, where does the 2008 presidential contest stand?

I don’t have data on this, but I’m willing to bet that at this point in the race most voters don’t believe anything that they see or hear in Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) and Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) TV ads, or from talking heads supporting the candidates. I know that I don’t.

I’m tired of the bizarre distortions and half-truths, and of the endless platitudes. McCain, the straight-talker, isn’t 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? McCain’s Social Security plan would have cost senior citizens all of their retirement savings? Obama wants to raise everyone’s taxes?

How stupid do they think we are? Pretty stupid, apparently.

Campaign distortions are nothing new, of course. But maybe it’s 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 nation’s 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 shouldn’t 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 Party’s left and represented positions (including affirmative action) that many white voters don’t 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. He’s 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 he’s pro-life and pro-gun and describes himself as a conservative Democrat, I believe that most white voters in Louisiana’s 7th district, who are currently quite content to be represented by Republican Rep. Charles Boustany, will see him as just another black Democrat, and they’ll read a lot into that.

Because Cravins isn’t 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 shouldn’t 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 isn’t.

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 don’t believe anything the candidates say, they’ll use these familiar vote cues to figure out which candidate they prefer.

I believe that voters are already to this point, and that’s why the presidential contest is moving in a narrow range. The fundamentals of the election still work in Obama’s 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 I’ve referred to. They may prefer Obama’s 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 can’t really blame them regardless of their eventual choice.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on September 25, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.