Help! How Do I Decide Who to Vote For?

Here we go, folks! The GOP primary season is officially underway, with one down (i.e., Iowa caucus) and three more primaries scheduled just in January (i.e., New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida). Rick Santorum got a nice surge over the past 2-3 weeks, enough to essentially tie with Mitt Romney in Iowa, who officially won by 8 votes (though several votes are in contention). Santorum’s surge appears to have come largely from evangelicals and other social conservatives who identify with his strong pro-life/pro-family message. But, Santorum also has a strong opinion on national defense, particularly when it comes to Iran. Many conservatives think along the same lines, so that probably helped him, too.

2012 GOP candidatesYet, other GOP candidates have very similar and arguably just as firm stances on both issues. So, what was it that convinced so many Iowans to vote for Santorum, who otherwise has been languishing in the single digits in most national polls? Is it his youthful appearance? His big family? His tireless campaigning throughout the state — probably only matched by Michele Bachmann? I’ve read several comments by people who saw or even met him in person, and they say he’s just a “real”, regular guy. Is that it?

The purpose of this post is not to focus on Santorum. (He’s currently my second choice, in case you’re curious.) I really just want to look at some of the reasons why we voters choose who we choose. How do we make that decision? Of course, I’m not a sociologist or political expert of any kind. so I’m just gonna make a few observations and suggestions, one “average” voter to another.

A few diligent citizens learn just about everything there is to know about each candidate and his/her personal and professional past. Of course, most of us don’t have the desire or time to spend in such in-depth research. Many others will be pretty much single-issue voters. Social conservatives will usually focus on the candidates’ records and statements about abortion and the pro-life issue. Some of those may combine that with a look at candidates’ “scores” on traditional family vs. same-sex marriage & the “gay agenda”. Others will be most concerned with the candidates’ records on 2nd Amendment rights vs gun control legislation. Others still will be more focused on matters of fiscal/economic policy and/or national security/defense. But, I think it’s safe to say that many voters — perhaps the majority — are somewhere in between, just trying to get a handle on most of the issues, what each candidate’s general ideology seems to be, weighing the pluses & minuses for each candidate. Hopefully, all of this is done within a mindset that recognizes and desires to keep the founding principles of our nation as laid out in our founding documents.

There are, of course, other factors that come into play, consciously or subconsciously, when deciding what we think and how we feel about a candidate. Are they physically attractive? Do I like their smile? Are they well-dressed and well-groomed? Do I (dis)like the sound of their voice? Do they have a good “origins” story? Can they personally identify with what I am going or have gone through? What personal “baggage” do they carry? How do they handle themselves, especially when “under fire”? Are they easily perturbed? Are they a Washington “insider” or an “outsider”? Have they ever run a company or organization before? Successfully? Et cetera. Whether we admit it or not, some of the stuff we look at is somewhat frivolous and, in the end, irrelevant. (Some people will vote for a candidate mainly, or solely, because of their race or gender. Can you believe that?!) Other things may or may not be all that significant, depending on who the candidate is and what “experts” you read or talk to.

stack of suitcases (i.e., "baggage")Now, I feel I should say a few words about “baggage”, “flip-flopping”, and accusations of lies & corruption. I’m already getting really tired of hearing all the crap being throw around from all sides. That’s to be expected to some degree, at least. But, what is frustrating is seeing people largely accepting the charges without much fact-checking or critical thought. Sure, there are definitely certain statements made and actions taken by the candidates in the past that need to be addressed, because they raise questions of morals/ethics, or (ir)responsibility, or an inconsistent record that may point to an “ideology” whose positions change according to the political winds. However, a few reminders:

1) While we may favor Candidate A, we should be careful not to demonize Candidates B, C, D, & E too much or assume that all accusations against them (and the implications thereof) are accurate or typical. (Besides, our guy may need the other guys’ support in the general election, if s/he is fortunate enough to be nominated.) By the same token, we should try to be somewhat objective about our favored candidate and not see them through rose-colored glasses. Even our guy probably screwed up once or thrice.

2) People do change their minds & attitudes for valid reasons. They mature, get more “real world” experience, discover new information, or are just persuaded otherwise. Sometimes an ideology, especially if it follows a paradigm shift (e.g., changing political parties or religions/denominations), just needs time to gel, as one gets more (new?) information and gains more understanding. We need to acknowledge this and, barring solid evidence that a candidate hasn’t really changed or doesn’t really believe what they currently claim they believe, give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. We should be more concerned with each candidate’s current positions, current behavior, and how they intend to fix the nation’s problems.

3) A lot of the accusations made in debates and smear campaign ads are little more than sound bites. Sometimes an official study or record of activities will be referenced, but we rarely get the full story. What are the rest of the facts? What is the historical context of the statement/action? After all, some decisions are strategic — e.g., in order to be more favorably positioned, perhaps get bipartisan support, on a more pressing or important matter in the future — and are not necessarily a betrayal of one’s principles. It’s frustrating, but negotiation and compromise are the name of the game in American politics, and it’s a whole lot better than dictation from on high (i.e., from a totalitarian executive).

If the issue is something that we are really concerned about, it behooves us (and is only fair to the accused) to look into the matter a bit more. There are usually written records and recorded statements than can be verified and should be taken in context. A fair-minded review of the facts may paint a little different picture than do the ads of a candidate’s competitors and detractors. (See Gingrich’s attempts to answer some of the complaints & allegations against him, for example.)

As much as we might like to throw some zingers at our friends/associates who support the other candidates, focusing on the negative stuff just distracts from what should be the real issues and simply makes those doing the attacking appear petty, desperate, and/or dishonest. (Just watch some of the debates to see what I mean.) Once a questionable vote/position has been reasonably & effectively countered or corrected, they and we need to just move on and concentrate on contrasting the candidates’ positions & approaches on the substantive issues.

Obama at news conference

President Obama explains his "nuanced" methods for bringing our nation to its knees

Finally, we need to consider if a candidate has the necessary finances, organization (both on the payroll and volunteer), and momentum to carry them through not only the primaries but into the run for the general election. (Yes, these are practical rather than ideological considerations. Some ideological purists may balk at this, but they are just as important.) Also, is it reasonable to expect said candidate to reach sufficient numbers of key groups — e.g., minorities, TEA Party activists, evangelicals, fiscally-minded and security/defense-minded independents, etc. — to beat the Obama machine? Can they effectively counter Obama’s “progressive” platform with articulate, fact-based, yet passionate explanations of how & why conservative approaches to our problems are (and always have been) better for the nation and everyone in it? In other words, is s/he electable? (And, no, you can’t rely on Divine Intervention to get an underdog elected. God gives no such guarantees.)

Essentially, we’re all looking for which candidate is the best “package”, representing the best overall combination of policies and concerns that we ourselves favor. But, the candidate also needs to have a good chance of getting into office, so that they can implement changes which will get the U.S. out of the big-government, spending-addicted, quasi-socialist quagmire we’ve been driven into.

Does the candidate whose platform you prefer meet those criteria? If not, I recommend that you alter your vote before you get to the caucus/primary ballot box.

Note: No one ever said it would be easy!

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