Question Day: Does It Matter Who Runs for President?

How important are the individual candidates?

Ochospantalones asks about presidential general elections: “Why do the specific identities of the candidates not matter more?”

Presidential elections are characterized by partisanship and huge amounts of information. Partisanship, of course, is present in every election in which candidates are chosen and identified by party. In fact as partisanship increases among voters, candidates and campaigns generally become less important.

For most U.S. elections, however, information is scarce. The news media pay little attention to the race for state attorney general, or state senate, or even the U.S. House of Representatives. And the campaigns spend relatively little money, and most of that is dedicated to improving name recognition because most voters barely know who the candidates are.

It might seem logical that if voters were provided with more information about the candidates, they would use that information as the basis for their vote, making candidates more important in presidential elections. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, most of us wind up interpreting all that information through partisan filters: The candidate the Democrats see as a tough truth-teller will be seen by the Republicans as obnoxious. And the anecdote that Republicans see as evidence that their candidate responds wisely to new information will be seen by Democrats as proof that candidate is a spineless flip-flopper. Or, with so much information, partisans can pick and choose -- i.e. the candidate himself isn’t very appealing but his family is great! Or: I can’t agree with the candidate on gun control, but I certainly agree with her desire to put people back to work!

That’s a lot harder to achieve when there’s less information, especially if -– as is often the case when an incumbent runs against a weak challenger -- the information is mostly or entirely one-sided. If all you know about a House election is that your current member has brought money into the district, then you might vote for her even if she’s from the other party.

So, oddly enough, it’s all that information, generated more or less equally from both sides, that is one of the things preventing candidates from mattering all that much in presidential general elections.

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