The “I vote for the candidate” self delusion

Most Americans when asked their voting preferences, give some variation on “I vote for the candidate, not the party.”  Not to put too fine a point on it, but for pretty much any federal of state legislative office this is just dumb.  The most important vote any member of the US House takes is for Speaker of the House.  Everything else is just details.  The majority party totally runs the show.  A Democrat that voted for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker and then voted against almost every individual Democratic agenda item is still a net plus for the Democratic party (except for the extraordinarily rare case where a single vote matters).  Yet, we go along fooling ourselves that the “leadership,” “integrity,” “character,” etc., of each individual candidate matters.   Ezra Klein has a post on Charlie Crist that ends in a nice riff on this:

Olympia Snowe is arguably the most independent Republican in the Senate — and she’s stuck with her party on 67.3 percent of votes in this Congress. That is to say, if you knew nothing about Snowe save that she was a Republican, you could predict her vote about 70 percent of the time.

And Snowe is actually uncommonly willing to vote with the other side. Ben Nelson is in Snowe territory, voting with the Democrats 67.6 percent of the time, and so is Susan Collins. But that’s about it. Scott Brown voted with the GOP 82.1 percent of the time. Joe Lieberman was there for the Democrats 90.6 percent of the time. Lindsey Graham showed up for the Republicans more than 92 percent of the time. (You can look up any politician you please here.) The reality is that the single most important thing to know about any politician is which party they’ll caucus with. Full stop.

Campaigns are built to fool us into thinking that we’re voting for individuals. We learn about the candidate’s family, her job, her background — even her dog. But we’re primarily voting for parties. The parties have just learned we’re more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as individuals. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The “I vote for the candidate” self delusion

  1. Brett Little says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “I vote for the candidate.” Too many. Needless to say, I leave the conversation shaking my damn head.

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