By Jonathan Bernstein
We have a strong-if- mistaken assumption that voters should be experts on political candidates, at least when it comes to those running for president. How does this assumption affect the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s health issue, for example, or to new revelations about Donald Trump’s business practices? Or, for that matter, to our understanding of the policies the candidates articulate?
Let’s start with the policy part.
When it comes to their positions, candidates generally give detailed information, freely available on their websites (Donald Trump is a partial exception, but even he sometimes talks about his plans if he’s elected). So, as David Weigel of the Washington Post correctly pointed out, the people mainly responsible for voter ignorance are the voters themselves.
The media spend more time on horse-race and scandal reporting than on the candidates’ proposals, but that doesn’t mean policy is ignored. If voters really wanted more stories on actual proposals, the press would oblige. Horse-race and scandal coverage isn’t what reporters or editors prefer. It’s what readers and viewers want, even if they subsequently complain about it and about politicians who supposedly never explain what they would do in office.
If voters themselves are responsible for their own ignorance, then there’s a related point to make about the debate over early voting.
Jim Geraghty at National Review argues against it mainly because it creates gaps between the information possessed by Election Day voters and those who go to the polls in October or even September. He sees it as a problem when some people have already voted before the general-election debates, and before whatever revelations are still to come in the final weeks of the campaign.
Geraghty supplies a few examples of late-breaking news, such as the financial crisis that unfolded in September 2008 and the revelation late in the 2000 cycle that George W. Bush once got a ticket for driving under the influence.
It isn’t clear why anyone should have shifted his or her vote in 2000 or 2008 because of this news. And it isn’t clear now why anyone should change his or her vote because Hillary Clinton has walking pneumonia, or because it turns out that Donald Trump’s charitable foundation is more of a sham than previously disclosed.
The main point here is that most people don’t base their votes on information they get about candidates and their policies. Mostly, we are voting for a candidate’s party. Or, more broadly, most of us vote in sync with those groups we identify with politically. The candidate’s campaign – hundreds of millions of dollars of it – is for the most part dedicated to pushing all of us to where we were likely go anyway, based on our party and group identification.
Nothing is wrong with that. If my ideology or profession or ethnicity or income bracket is important to me when it comes to politics, and if I can correctly match which candidate these groups are voting for, then I’m a sufficiently informed voter.
This doesn’t mean that all people in any group “should” vote for the same candidate. We all belong to dozens of groups, and we can and do choose which of these groups matter the most to us politically and which do not.
Nor does it mean that politicians can stop talking about policy, or that the media should stop pressing them on it.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.
Copyright 2016 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.