H.L. Mencken is often quoted as saying, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Great line, but Mencken got it wrong-at least when it comes to voters. Ever since I planted my first lawn signs for a county judge as a high-schooler in Cleveland, I've been fascinated by campaigns and elections. Now, 30 years later-after working in the Capitol and the White House, serving in three Presidential campaigns, and covering three more as Chief of Washington Correspondent for the ABD News-I'm still fascinated. And I'm still convinced that, in most elections most of the time, voters get it right. The process works. As we head into the most exciting, historic, and high-stakes Presidential election of our lifetimes, here are some suggestions on how you can be an even better voter.
Start with a gut check. Sit down and really think about which issues are most important to you: national health care or national security? Global warming or the makeup of the supreme court? Consider what qualities you most prize in a leader: empathy, decisiveness, or intelligence? Candor or competence? Then imagine that you are the President. What would be your top priority? Whom would you turn to for advice? Which principle or position would you be willing to stand by even if it put your whole Presidency at risk? How you size up the candidates should flow from how you answer those basic questions.
Political pollsters love the beer-buddy question-namely, to ask voters which candidate they'd most want to hang out with over a couple of cold ones or a cup of coffee. But I prefer to use the Godfather (or Godmother) Test. What that means: Pick a candidate as if your child's life depended on it. While liking the politician should be part of your thought process, having a Best Pal in the Oval Office isn't enough. The decisions made by the next President will help determine whether your children will have to fight in wars, how dependent they'll be on foreign oil, and whether Medicare and Social Security will be there when they retire. Vote for the candidate who has the competence and character to guide your child-and the country.
In addition to getting news from the TV, try to check out a solid newspaper every day. It will give you some breadth of coverage about the election and the context of the campaign. And, as you're making up your mind, don't be afraid to engage friends and family in debate. Not surprisingly, I disagree with the old saw that you should never discuss politics at the dinner table (although I do my best not to bore my toddlers). When I worked in politics, the best decisions I ever made came after conversations with my friends. So go at it-just try not to pick a fight at every meal.
Record numbers of viewers tuned into this year's primary debates-and for a good reason. They matter. Though face-to-face televised debates are a relatively recent phenomenon (the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 were the first ever), they've been key turning points in just about every campaign since. Both Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 might have been better off sticking with radio broadcasts. Many observers thought each had won his first televised debate on points, but Nixon was undone by bad makeup that failed to hide his 5 o'clock shadow, and Gore was undercut by reaction shots that caught him sighing and rolling his eyes while George W. Bush was speaking. Viewers were turned off. Gerald Ford's bid against Jimmy Carter in 1976 stalled at the second debate, when Ford declared there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Meanwhile, Bill Clinton sealed his 1992 victory during a second debate with George H.W. Bush. As Clinton engaged a questioner on the economy, Bush was caught checking his watch. The metaphor stuck. While nothing in a campaign can match the demands that a President will face in the White House Situation Room, debates can offer a glimpse of how candidates perform when everything's on the line. Watch how they handle the pressure-and give extra credit for spontaneity. Are they thinking on their feet or reciting canned talking points? Which one can defuse a difficult moment with humor, recover from a gaffe with grace, or pounce on an opponent's mistake without seeming too mean-spirited? Wit and showmanship are important. They feed into what political scholar Richard Neustadt considered the most essential Presidential power-"the power to persuade."
Where the candidates have come from, what positions they take on the issues, whom they listen to, and how they make decisions all matter. No one quality is the key to success. Take experience, for example. It's hard to imagine a President coming to the White House with a more stellar resume than James Buchanan, who had been a congressman, a senator, and ambassador, and Secretary of State. But he failed miserably as President - passive in the face of a looming Civil War. Nor can a candidate who promises change necessarily achieve it. Jimmy Carter came in after Watergate promising "a government as good as the American people," but he ended up not having the political skill to deliver one. Experience, judgment, and the competence all have to be weighed in equal measure. And think hard before disqualifying a candidate for being a flip-flopper. Flip-flopping can be the most devastating criticism-and deservedly so, if the candidate shifts with the political winds. But history also is full of Presidents who changed their minds for the right reasons. The Louisiana Purchase was the kind of power-grab that ran against Thomas Jefferson's deepest principles, but he came to see it as a wise investment in America's future, and supporting it turned out to be one of the best Presidential decisions ever. Abe Lincoln promised the South that he wouldn't abolish slavery. Thank goodness he changed his mind.
It's a cliche, but look at recent experiences. The 2000 election was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court when the official count showed 537 votes in Florida separating Bush from Gore-a difference of less than one-tenth of one percent of the state's electorate. Flip fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio, and John Kerry is President in 2004. Nixon would have won in 1960 with 5000 shifted votes in each of Illinois and South Carolina, and 12,000 in New Jersey. Who knows if this year's contest will be a cliffhanger? What I do know is that 2008 is shaping up as one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history. More Americans will vote this year than ever before. I'm confident that we will prove Mencken wrong-one more time.