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Tilting at Windmills

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November 1, 2010

THE LIMITED VALUE OF THE 'VOTE FOR THE PERSON' MAXIM.... The New York Times's Sunday magazine ran a brief interview with Garry Wills yesterday , and his chat with Deborah Solomon didn't appear to go especially well. He twice referred to a line of questioning as "silly."

But reader C.W. emailed to note the last exchange between the two, which stood out.

Solomon: Whom will you be voting for in this Tuesday's election?

Wills: I always vote the party. It's ridiculous not to. You may like a person who is Republican, but if you vote for that person, you're voting for all the apparatus that comes along with it.

Wills, for the record, did not specify exactly which party would have his support on Election Day, though I suppose it's not too difficult to guess his intentions.

As to his observation, though, I've lost count of how many times I've heard people say, with some degree of pride, "I vote for the person, not the party." I get the sense those who repeat it consider it evidence of high-minded independence.

But I've never fully understood what the sentiment is supposed to mean, exactly. After all, most of the time, those Ds and Rs candidates put in parentheses after their names are not just for show -- they generally stand for something. One party wants to pursue policies that would take the country in one direction; the other party has a very different direction in mind. Especially as the differences between the parties become greater than at any time in generations, voters can express a preference between two visions that have precious little in common.

With that in mind, the "I vote for the person" crowd is making an odd argument. These folks seem to be suggesting they're not especially concerned with policy differences, policy visions, or agendas, but rather, are principally concerned with personalities. Maybe the candidate seems more personable; maybe they ran better commercials. Either way, as a substantive matter, the "vote for the person, not the party" approach seems pretty weak. Indeed, it's what leads people to express a series of policy priorities, and then vote for a candidate who opposes all of those priorities -- a dynamic that's as exasperating as it is counter-productive.

Michael Kinsley had a piece on voting party lines a few years ago, and its point still resonates: "There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person.... A candidate's party affiliation doesn't tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact, it tells you a lot -- enough so that it even makes sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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It wasn't always such a crazy notion, back when there were still moderate Republicans (lord knows there are still plenty of conservadems).

Posted by: slappy magoo on November 1, 2010 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

While I can see that there is some merit in the idea of voting for a party on not the person, I do think this too has its limits. If the party I favor kept nominating unqualified candidates with extremist positions . . . oh wait. Nevermind.

Posted by: DK on November 1, 2010 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

"A candidate's party affiliation doesn't tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something."

Yeah, that worked out really well with a lot of the Blue Dogs, didn't it? There are still some good reasons to pay attention to the candidate, I would think. Otherwise, you could stamp an R or D on a bunch of robots. Oh ... that's already being done isn't it.

What we really need is a few more parties in the mix. I'm for the breaking up of the conservatives into about three separate parties :-). Do you think they will go along with my little plan?

Posted by: Wacky Librul on November 1, 2010 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe the candidate seems more personable; maybe they ran better commercials.

Or maybe he or she is an entrenched incumbent who is really good at bringing the pork back home.

Posted by: martin on November 1, 2010 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Unless- like the folks here- politics is your passion, you can't discern much about any candidate based on their mailings, radio spots, commercials and yard signs.

Yard signs- invariably, in red, white and blue,- fail to mention the party affiliation of the candidate. Ditto the negative TV spots: "Joe Blow is a crook and a liar! I'm Jane Doe and I approve of this message."

Here in PA, I can't remember which gubernatorial candidate is the R and which is the D. By pulling the party lever, I don't have to remember. . .

Posted by: DAY on November 1, 2010 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Back in the olden days, the 20th century, one had the luxury of voting for the person because the Repubs did not move in lock-step.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on November 1, 2010 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

"Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike."

Most of the Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, and Rand Paul voters?

Posted by: CarlP on November 1, 2010 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Wacky Liberul, let's hope the party breaks itself up into many pieces.

On Steve's point: I agree to a great degree that Democrats should vote straight tickets. However, I wouldn't mind it if a Republican or an independent voted for a Democrat once in a while.

You see what I'm saying? If there are reasonable minded people who aren't in the party I prefer, I would want them to choose some of the stellar candidates with a D after their names.

I used to support one particular republican because he was a very moderate and sensible politician who worked across the aisle with other senators, including his Democratic colleague from his home state. He's a good person. True, there are things I despise him for but I had to overlook those couple of things and see what good he'd done. And, I voted for him until he retired.

The problem is there are fewer and fewer Republicans who seem to understand that being partisan isn't key to getting elected or governing. Or, that it shouldn't be key. That makes crossing the line more difficult for me.

But, again, if a Democratic Rep. or Senator, on a state or federal level, got some Republicans to vote for them because they are good at what they do, I'd encourage them to continue to cross their party line and choose person over party.

I also think that you might be wrong, Steve, if you are saying it is 100% personality driven to vote for the person. I chose that candidate and wanted him get re-elected because he was good for that state and he was fair-minded. Often he voted against party when it came down to legislation. That's something good. Because he was voting for good legislation, not voting to block the other party or bolster his own party.

Posted by: Gus on November 1, 2010 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Well, for about 20 years we've been reading Mo Dowd's glorified gossip column, which treats every election as a high school popularity contest in which the color of the candidate's clothes and the price of his haircut are much more important than his positions on the issues. And we've witnessed the most extravagant cult of Messianic personality in our lifetimes with the Presidency of George "the leader God has given us" Bush, who made up for his personal incompetence with staged photo ops that would make Kim Jong Il blush. So this idea has a long, if not exactly respectable, pedigree.

Posted by: T-Rex on November 1, 2010 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

It is truly a shame that the Progressives are a movement and not a Party. It would great to see a P behind the name and know you are voting for a true Progressive.

The true shame is for years we have been, often, left with voting for the lesser evil. So, do we pass on the RepuG, only to have to vote for the RepuGlite so-called D? Party principles sound wonderful, Steve, if only many of the Dees would adhere to them, once elected.

Posted by: berttheclock on November 1, 2010 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting that you don't offer any substantive refutation to this idea, just 'it's dumb.'

There is no redeeming value in voting for a party over a person; in fact, since many people are independent rather than affiliated with any party, and hardly ever support a party's entire platform, the 'vote for the party over the person' argument is plainly a stupid one.

Posted by: JEA on November 1, 2010 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK


The refutation is short because it's so obvious a point:

"You may like a person who is Republican, but if you vote for that person, you're voting for all the apparatus that comes along with it."

And: "These folks seem to be suggesting they're not especially concerned with policy differences, policy visions, or agendas, but rather, are principally concerned with personalities."

Voting for Susan Collins and Barack Obama is like rooting for the quarterback of one team and the defensive line of the opposing team.

Posted by: gussie on November 1, 2010 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

What's going on, I was beginning to feel hopeful about this election, this a.m. I read articles by Howard Fineman & others who say it will be really bad for dems losing 70 seats to repubs.
On another note, I read a word from someone in the UK, they went more to the right this year because of unemployment etc, the results are going to be a disaster for anyone who is poor, homeless etc. The US will be in for the same.

Posted by: js on November 1, 2010 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

I've taken to saying that I'd vote the straight Democratic ticket even if the candidates are shown to eat live kittens for breakfast.

I would feel better if the party could impose a little discipline on its senators during these years of crisis. Those so-called 'Blue Dogs' made it way too hard to do any real work.

Posted by: Daniel Kim on November 1, 2010 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

I think it depends on the position. In legislative positions, party almost always overcomes personality--you are voting for a vote, essentially. But for executive positions, especially at the more local, operational levels of governance, the person can matter a lot. (I've crossed party lines to vote for a sheriff and a mayor.)

Posted by: anon on November 1, 2010 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

I grew up in the era of segregationist Southern Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans - hell, Rocky himself was governor of NY back then. It made real sense to vote for the person and not the party.

But nowadays the two parties have vastly different philosophies, and vote increasingly in lockstep. On the GOP side, even the alleged moderates from Maine vote with their party on stuff that's absolutely crazy. And despite the Blue Dogs, even the Dems vote in a much more unified manner than they used to even a decade or so ago.

As a statistician (guilty as charged!) might say, the interparty variance is far greater than the intraparty variance. There's no man, or woman, you can vote for whose independence will nullify their party affiliation.

When you vote for a Democrat, you get someone who will vote Democratic in a sizable majority of the votes that are a matter of any conroversy; when you vote for a Republican, you get someone who will always or almost always vote Republican in such votes.

Given that the two parties have such different worldviews that there's no way to split the difference anyway, any voter should have a pretty decent idea of what side of the philosophical divide he or she stands on. And should pull the lever accordingly on Election Day.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on November 1, 2010 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with slappy magoo (which is a fun thing to say):
"It wasn't always such a crazy notion, back when there were still moderate Republicans"

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.

Voting for a party instead of a person allows crazy, extreme candidates to win, leading to no compromise, winner-take-all, parliamentary-style politics.

The problem is that given every other district is operating like this, it is in our individual interest to vote for party over person, so as to deny chair positions to the extreme politicians from other districts.

This is especially true when control of Congress is likely to switch parties.

Posted by: kp on November 1, 2010 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

The place to vote (and work for!) the person, not the party, is in the primary. Because, once a candidate is chosen, their success or failure depends largely on big money and GOTV.

Posted by: DAY on November 1, 2010 at 9:47 AM | PERMALINK

There is a lot of political science literature on this. One hundred years ago, most people voted straight party tickets. This was a vestige of the pre-Australian ballot, where ballots were printed in color, by the parties. Balloting was not at all secret. The Australian ballot, that is, secret ballots, came into vogue in the 1890's. This made it easier to split tickets. Nonetheless, split ticket voting in substantial numbers came only later.

Note that voting for party means that parties are strong. Voting for the individual means that parties are weak. When people claim they vote for the individual, they are voting for a weak party system.

I suppose we should also note that the recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance places powers outside of formal party organizations, and in the hands of fundraisers. This will weaken the formal party organization, but strengthen "shadow" party organizations.

Posted by: jdog on November 1, 2010 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

I vote for positions on issues and qualifications. Sometimes that is not discernible in which case I tend to opt for the party that I agree with the majority of the time.

Tomorrow I have a choice between the (R) DeMint and the (D) Greene and I will vote for neither. What do I gain or the Democrats gain by my vote for Greene? I have 2 write in candidates names, but the Green Party candidate appears to be well qualified and his positions are well stated and thought out.

I think it is great to have guiding principles but it is the height of laziness not to investigate further.

Of course it doesn't seem to matter who I vote for- DeMint knows he is going to win, he has barely campaigned and I haven't seen a single commercial for this seat. Instead my vote will be data for the next campaign and primary.

Posted by: KJ on November 1, 2010 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

Wills gets it. My district is represented by a so-called Blue Dog who's running only slightly ahead of his Republican challenger this year. The GOP candidate is, surprisingly, not a teabagging nutjob, but a fairly sane, right-of-center businessman. All things being equal, he probably wouldn't be a terrible representative. Except for the fact that he'd probably vote 95% of the time with the crazies that run his party. So despite the fact that he seems like a nice, reasonable guy, a vote for him is, objectively, a vote for Teh Crazy.

Posted by: jonas on November 1, 2010 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

While I agree with the vote the party sentiment in general, people have to be open to voting for the exceptional person now and then. When I moved to my current residence, in the district formerly represented by Connie Morella, the impeachment vote on Clinton had just been taken and Connie was one of the few Republicans to vote against her party and the only one to vote against all four articles of impeachment. That sort of independence and moderation deserves support and when I went to register to vote I registered as a Republican so that I could vote in the Republican primary to support her if the party tried to punish her. They didn't mount any serious campaign in 2000 and she cruised to victory. Today, ten years later some Tea Party Bozos would have her scalp dangling from a pole. I don't regret my vote for Morella and would do it again, even in the current atmosphere of hyper-partisanship on the right. Sometimes you have to vote for the man and not the party, just to reward those rare individuals in politics who show some backbone and do the right thing when the pressure is on.

Posted by: majun on November 1, 2010 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

So far as his impatience with Solomon, it's hardly surprising. Wills is a fairly rigorous intellect, and Solomon often makes MoDo look like Walter Lippman. There's also the matter of the walk-backs and retractions that the column has generated.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on November 1, 2010 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

The (D)in front of the elected officials name should probably mean they will at least try for a day or two to accomplish what they claimed they wanted during the election.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on November 1, 2010 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

PS I already voted solid Democrat.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on November 1, 2010 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

It depends on the position. For local and state politics, I think that voting for the person is the right thing to do. Whether your Sheriff is a Democrat or Republican matters less than his competence and fair-mindedness.

But at the Federal level, voting for Senator or Representative on anything other than party basis makes no sense. Your candidate may have an independent streak, and his or her vote may not be completely determined by his party affiliation, but on the most important issues, the breaks are along party lines, and the numbers in each party is what makes the difference.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on November 1, 2010 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Wacky Librul,

Even in the case of the Blue Dogs, party affiliation was a good predictor; the Blue Dogs may have voted the wrong way on many key issues, but surely less often than a Republican would have.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on November 1, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

The “person not the party” line always seems to come from pedants who feel obligated to say that we live not in a democracy, but rather a republic.

As somebody here or elsewhere said a few months ago, that’s like saying I’m not eating a piece of fruit, but an apple.

Posted by: Viceroy Matt on November 1, 2010 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

Tomorrow I will vote for the 44th time in a Nov. election. I have never voted for a republican. If I didn't like the democratic candidate I skipped his lever. Parties run things. It makes no sense to split a ticket.
By the way, Wills is a pacifist so he has to bitch about wars.

Posted by: hornblower on November 1, 2010 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

Good post, Steve.

There is no redeeming value in voting for a party over a person; in fact, since many people are independent rather than affiliated with any party

No. "Many" are not. The complete rarity is.

and hardly ever support a party's entire platform

Hope you enjoyed your 40-year nap. Now that you're awake, may we introduce you to today's GOP? Taking the current Senate as just one example, you may count on two hands with fingers left over the times that a GOP senator has voted for significant Dem-supported legislation.

the 'vote for the party over the person' argument is plainly a stupid one.

Insofar as it can't always predict what a Democrat with a majority Republican constituency is going to do, all right. For everything else, bzzzzzt.

Posted by: shortstop on November 1, 2010 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

In case anyone wants to make lemonade out of lemons tomorow, it is predicted that a disproportionate number of dem casualties will be blue dogs.

Posted by: gocart mozart on November 1, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

Echoing Gus, I comb through candidate profiles looking for the one or two R's I can support.

You know why? I want to strengthen moderate Republicans. After all, folks, how does all this machinery get built? How is it to change if we don't act to inject sanity into the diseased monster that is today's knuckle-dragging half-wit battalion?

Conversely, how am I to favor bad Democrats with higher vote totals. When the Democrat is a DLC-type and the Republican is tolerably bad, I'll never get a good Democrat if I let the DINO stick around. I vote third party, refuse to vote in that race, or punch R and hold one nostril shut, in that order. (If I have to hold both, I might as well hold both and punch the D.)

If you vote for crap, they'll keep sending it to you. Tolerance of mediocrity is where mindless party line voting gets us.

If everyone voted this way, Progressives might be more common and moderate Republicans wouldn't be so rare.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on November 1, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

I read more comments.

US Senators are exempt from this open-mindedness.
At least until the ghost of Tom DeLay's iron fisted intolerance of dissent fades away.

I cannot give 6 years to Republicans that aren't allowed to voice independence ever.

Republican congress candidates better be amazing or facing a Lieberman clone.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on November 1, 2010 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

Generally I agree with Steve, especially in the present situation. However, I have occasionally voted for a Republican, most recently when William Weld was running for Governor of Mass. against John Silber. In that case, I had real knowledge of the latter's ways, having dealt with him in person more than once (I taught at Boston University for a while). The deal was sealed for me by one of his aides at BU, who, when I commented that I thought Dr. Silber had the temperament of a fascist, that aide replied that he thought Silber would be pleased to hear that.

Of course, Weld was in effect drummed out of the GOP by Jesse Helms, and would certainly not belong there today. In fact, I suspect he might be somewhere to the left of Clinton. So maybe I wasn't really voting for a Republican at all, but was just a little ahead of the times.

Posted by: jrosen on November 1, 2010 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

In a fantasy match up between Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson, I think I would vote Hagel every time.

Posted by: Ryan on November 1, 2010 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Echoing others above... my R congressman is a moderate and reasonable person, yet he votes with the likes of Bachmann, Gohmert, etc. every time. Even though he's a moderate and far more qualified than his Dem opponent, I'll vote for the Dem as a protest. (There's no doubt the R will be re-elected.)

OTOH, I am voting for one R this time, for county commissioner. She's doing a great job, very moderate and reasonable. So much so that she was unopposed. So it does depend on the race and position.

Posted by: Hmmmmm on November 1, 2010 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Let me guess why you'd choose Hagel?

Hagel's Convictions vs. Nelson's Spinelessness and Selfishness as he's shown by constantly objecting to good policymaking?

Like some other posters pointed out: rewarding good behavior isn't a bad choice. I think this is especially true if they, like Hagel, are willing to buck their party on extremely important matters when the GOP is undoubtedly wrong.

Though, I write these things having completely and utterly forgotten that McCain does his Maverick Moves Like a Ninja. As I remember he exists, I wish he'd just disappear like a ninja.

He'd be one of the few who've made good choices on the other side whom I would NOT vote for. I've felt that way going back years...predating his Media Love God status.

Posted by: Gus on November 1, 2010 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

There is no redeeming value in voting for a party over a person; in fact, since many people are independent rather than affiliated with any party

-No. "Many" are not. The complete rarity is.-

I know partisans love to believe that there are no real independents. But the fact is that many people rarely vote at all and the reason the majority swings from Republican to Democrat and back again is because millions of Americans either switch their vote or decide to sit out an election.

Most people have ideological preferences, but that doesn't mean they give a damn whether your party wins. They'll give a damn if you stand for something they believe in, but they'll sit it out if they believe that you're just more of the same.

Maybe Democrats could have motivated out large blocks of non-voters if they'd stood up for groups like Hispanics during the Arizona SB1070 battle, or for Muslims when Republicans were attacking the "ground zero mosque", or for homeowners who were being defrauded into foreclosure, or any of the dozens of other outcast groups that get targeted every election year. It sure seems like that would have been a good idea right now, doesn't it?

Posted by: Jinchi on November 1, 2010 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

But there are circumstances like John Cole's vote where you actually know both candidates and know who would be a better public servant. (This also happened in the late 1980s when my parents supported Jack Buechner, a very conservative Republican, because he had integrity.) When parties force you to vote the party because you are really voting against the leadership of the other party that is sad for democracy.

Posted by: 4jkb4ia on November 1, 2010 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

if they'd stood up for groups like Hispanics during the SB1070 battle

SB 1070 is a state law, and the federal government, composed of Democrats, sued to invalidate the state law based on federal prerogatives. Having done nothing on immigration is more important for Hispanics than whether Arizona passes a law IMHO, because doing something meaningful on immigration at the federal level precludes laws like that.

Posted by: 4jkb4ia on November 1, 2010 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Not to mention that mindless voting for the party is what is killing Russ Feingold right now.

Posted by: 4jkb4ia on November 1, 2010 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

I've been wondering why this idea has been missing in the current debate. "Independents" are actually low-information voters who don't understand how the US government operates. Parties are what get things done, or what keep things from getting done.

If you're undecided a week out from an election, you're an idiot who is not operating as a citizen. And it's a sad commentary on American democracy that our elections are decided by a handful of swing voters who are essentially uninformed.

Posted by: slideguy on November 1, 2010 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

It is well-known that single-member plurality districts (SMPD) disproportionately tend toward a two-party system (so well-known that it has a name; Duverger's Law.)

Sure, there are differences between candidates, but when viewed the pixelating lens of SMPD, most of the time all you can tell (or need to be able to tell) is "red" or "blue".

But what if we didn't use SMPD? What if we used a single-member voting system that didn't tend toward two-party domination, like approval voting? What if used a multi-member (AKA proportional representation) system? At the very least, there'd be more "major" parties to viably chose from, and you wouldn't have to buy the whole R or D package as a set. Parties would still matter, but the candidates would represent parties that more-accurately reflect their personal views, so, in a sense, the person matters more. Or is at least less "pixelated".

Posted by: Dale Sheldon-Hess on November 1, 2010 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

Former President Harry Truman said it best: "I vote for the better man. He is the Democratic nominee."

Posted by: John Herbison on November 2, 2010 at 12:43 AM | PERMALINK

Vote Alvin Greene!

Posted by: dualdiagnosis on November 2, 2010 at 4:33 AM | PERMALINK

To suggest one is interested in personalities is to assume one has not reviewed the record of the individual. which only suggests that one is canted toward dogma of any agenda. This of course assumes that one is somewhat of a zealot, which only hints that one is easily manipulated by times and conditions. On all counts the "ass" of assumption applies - completely idiotic....

Posted by: TJR on November 2, 2010 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

I vote for the person, not the party is a sound maxim. You're analysis here seems to assume that we only have two parties in our political system. While D and R are the parties who have power, I'm sure that voters in Vermont who voted for Bernie Sanders over the D and the R when he has run for senate voted for the person, not the party. I care about policy, just not the entire policy of either major party. As such, some Ds agree with me on more policies than Rs while some Rs agree with me on more policies than Ds, I don't have to subscribe to an entire ideology to care about policy.

Posted by: Isaac on November 2, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK



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