The way we do the things we do

“I’m voting against all of them.”

These were the words of a disappointed state employee who’d been downsized as a result of the budget cuts recently implemented by the legislature and the governor.

There was no reasoning with her. She is going to vote against every incumbent officeholder to “send a message” — an angry, frustrated one.

Some folks vote this way in every election. One of them told me: “I just always vote against them that’s in. And whoever wins this time, I’ll be voting against them next time.”

I am just the opposite. People say I’m too charitable toward elected officials, but I value their experience and the commitment to public service that many of them have. I know how easy it is to criticize them — and how hard it is for them to get things done. So, all other things being about equal, I’m reluctant to give up the benefit of having an experienced officeholder.

Of course, plenty of other factors will also influence our voting this November.

For many people, each candidate’s political party will be the main thing. A lot of people say, “Oh, I vote for the man (or woman) rather than the party.” But statistics show that party affiliation is more often than not a very strong factor in voters’ choices.

In fact, many folks are proud of their loyal support for their party’s nominees. There’s an old story about one such loyal Democrat whose friend criticized him for his blind loyalty, saying, “You would vote for the devil if he were a Democrat, wouldn’t you?”

The loyal Democrat thought about this for a minute, scratched his head, and then replied, “Well, I wouldn’t vote for him in the primary.”

(The recent primaries, of course, were intraparty contests, leaving this loyal Democrat free to vote against the devil anyway — if he’d been running.) But you can rest assured that come election day, loyalty will be a factor. For instance, I’ve heard voters in both parties say their choice in the U.S. Senate primary was based on who they think “has the best chance to win in November,” even though they might personally prefer another candidate.

But what other factors are likely to influence our choices in the upcoming election?

1. Views on the issues

Unless we know something more about the candidates, we may well make our selections based solely on the extent to which the candidate’s views on important issues seem to coincide with ours. This is an important reason — why support someone who will work against the things that most matter to us. But should it be the exclusive reason?

I remember a conversation I had with a political group that was enthusiastically supporting a member of Congress whose conduct had made him the laughingstock of the press and the whole country. “Why do you support someone like this?” I asked them. “Take a look at his stands on issues,” they said. “He is a vote that we can count on to support our agenda. His character? Well, that’s another matter.”

2. Effectiveness

For some voters, the comfort of having someone in office who agrees with them is apparently enough; for them, effectiveness is secondary.

For me, however, effectiveness is a critical (and all-too-rare) quality. It’s very hard to get things accomplished in government; even the best ideas have an incredibly tough time getting adopted. And without an effective champion, they will almost certainly wind up in the trash bin.

3. Constituent service

Another reason we vote for particular candidates is that they’ve helped us in some direct way. Jesse Helms, for example, developed an extraordinary reputation for “constituent service.” Many people tell me that, although they don’t agree with his political views, they always voted for him because he always took care of them when they asked for help.

4. Image

Some of us make voting judgments based on the candidate’s appearance, communication skills and charisma. The influence of television has amplified this tendency, because these are often the only things we know about a candidate.

5. Endorsements

You’ll be looking at what the newspapers recommend, won’t you?

Here’s the way I think endorsements work. If I don’t know, based on my own study or experience, whom I should vote for, I will trust the recommendation of someone I know and trust — a friend, an organization or a newspaper.

6. Character

For many of us, this is an important consideration (just mention Bill Clinton’s name in a group if you don’t believe me). But don’t forget: The polls said President Clinton would have been re-elected in 2000 if he’d been able to run again, proving that character isn’t everything when it comes to choosing candidates to support.

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