January/ February 2012 Campaign Promises

What they say is how they'll govern.

By Jonathan Bernstein

George W. Bush had a problem. As he prepared to sweep to his party’s presidential nomination with the endorsements of several GOP governors, and to run a moderate general election campaign against Al Gore, he didn’t need to worry about social conservatives, thanks to a solid record on their issues and a great story to tell about his personal path to religion. But his strongest opponent in the early going was publisher Steve Forbes, running on a flat tax platform. Bush had no particular record of exceptional orthodoxy on taxes, and of course that was an area in which being his father’s son was highly problematic, and therefore might have been vulnerable to attacks by Forbes.

The solution was obvious, and for the U.S. budget, fateful: Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut, thereby destroying the rationale for the Forbes campaign and leaving the Texas governor a clear path to the nomination. And, as everyone knows, that tax cut also became part of Bush’s general election campaign platform, and was eventually enacted into law in the massive 2001 and 2003 tax cuts—tax cuts that have set the terms of budget politics for the last decade.

The lesson: we can be governed now by measures that were adopted years ago, in some cases decades ago, based on what some candidate said in reaction to the particular dynamics of some now-obscure nomination battle.

Or, to be more blunt: presidents usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign. So if you want to know what Mitt Romney or the rest of the Republican crowd would do in 2013 if elected, the best way to find out is to listen to what they are saying right now.

I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail. The presumption is that politicians are liars who say what voters want to hear to get elected and then behave very differently once in office. The press is especially prone to discount the more extreme positions candidates take in primaries on the expectation that they will “move to the center” in the general election. Certainly everyone can recall specific examples of broken promises, from Barack Obama not closing Gitmo to George W. Bush and “nation building” to, well, you may remember this from the Republican National Convention in 1988:

And I’m the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent, my opponent now says, my opponent now says, he’ll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that’s one resort he’ll be checking into. My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found is that out-and-out high-profile broken pledges like George H. W. Bush’s are the exception, not the rule. That’s what two book-length studies from the 1980s found. Michael Krukones in Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984) established that about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel looked at campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. What he found was that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping. Similarly, Gerald Pomper studied party platforms, and discovered that the promises parties made were consistent with their postelection agendas. More recent and smaller-scale papers have confirmed the main point: presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

Richard Fenno’s studies of how members of Congress think about representation are relevant here, even though his research is based on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Fenno, in a series of books beginning with Home Style in 1978, has followed members as they work their districts, and has transcribed what the world looks like through politicians’ eyes. What he has found is that representatives and senators see every election as a cycle that begins in the campaign, when they make promises to their constituents. Then, if they win, they interpret how those promises will constrain them once they’re in office. Once in Washington, Fenno’s politicians act with two things in mind: how their actions match the promises they’ve made in the previous campaign; and how they will be able to explain those actions when they return to their district. Representation “works,” then, because politicians are constantly aware that what they do in Washington will have to be explained to their constituents, and that it will have to be explained in terms of their original promises.

Of course, there’s more to it than that; at the presidential level, one of the key ways that campaigns constrain presidents is that the same people who draft the candidate’s proposals usually wind up working on those same issue areas in the White House or the relevant departments and agencies, and they tend to be highly committed to the ideas they authored. And don’t sell short the possibility that candidates themselves are personally committed to the programs they advocate—either because those issues sparked their interest in politics to begin with (and that’s why they were advocating them on the campaign trail), or because it’s just a natural human inclination to start believing your own rhetoric.

So why are most Americans (and many members of the working press) so skeptical of campaign promises? One reason is that we tend to care a lot when promises are broken, and so those examples get a lot more attention than do the ones that are redeemed, which often can seem by the time they are finally acted on as foregone conclusions, not news. That’s especially true for the president’s strongest supporters, who are the most likely to be upset about a broken presidential promise, and “Democrats upset with Obama” or “Republicans upset with Bush” is more unexpected and therefore more newsy than when the other party attacks the president. Another reason is that the Madisonian system of checks and balances, especially in eras of frequent divided government, often yields situations in which a president may try hard to achieve a goal he campaigned for, only to be stymied by Congress. (And not just Congress: the bureaucracy doesn’t automatically implement even those initiatives that can be accomplished without legislation.) But given the media’s intense focus on the president at the expense of the rest of the system, activists often blame the president for falling short, rather than holding Congress or others responsible for blocking presidential initiatives. The result is that people systematically underestimate the importance of positions taken on the presidential campaign trail.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Thad on January 05, 2012 2:59 PM:

    Do we have a better source than Politifact? I'm not inclined to trust them after that "It's a filthy lie to say Paul Ryan would end Medicare, because the completely different program he wants to implement would still be called Medicare" nonsense.

  • skeptonomist on January 06, 2012 12:12 PM:

    The people who wrote Obama's speeches on fighting Wall Street and human rights (detainment without trial etc.) must have been thrown off the bus before the inauguration, because very little of this came through into actual policy. Actually, Obama had appointed several people to economic positions whose actions were in contradiction to what the speeches said. So, pay attention to appointments, not speeches.

  • Chris on January 06, 2012 2:05 PM:

    "...Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut, thereby destroying the rationale for the Forbes campaign." George W. Bush couldn't pronounce half the words in this sentence. He simply said and did what Rove and Cheney told him to - for eight years.

  • Jimo on January 06, 2012 2:28 PM:

    Yeah, but after the 2011 Lie of the Year fiasco, who believes PolitiFact any longer? Sheesh.

  • mol on January 07, 2012 3:36 PM:

    These are not just "exceptions":
    I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence.
    I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building.
    A nation-building corps from America. Absolutely not.
    He [Gore] believes in nation building. I would be very careful ...

    The two budget-busting nation-building projects that violated these promises were the among biggest and most destructive events of the last decade.

    The fact that he may have followed through on some other things hardly matters when it comes to something of this magnitude.

  • prohb on January 08, 2012 12:08 AM:

    These article are some of the most insightful....and chilling ...... I have ever read. This really could happen. How have Americans been so fooled and manipulated by the Republican Messaging Machine?

    We should also look at what a possible Romney administration would look like - all the different kinds of Cabinet (those he keeps), Deputy Cabinet, and hidden, non-voted on, people he will have working in the Executive Branch. You know he will kow-tow to the Tea Party . and appoint many of them. This is a very scary thought. How did we get to this point????

  • zandru on January 09, 2012 4:10 PM:

    "Careful observation" of what a candidate says and does, eh?

    Another way of phrasing that would be "Don't take what he says at face value." And this kind of contradicts the apparent thesis of the entire article, doesn't it?

  • Brian McDaniel on January 10, 2012 12:31 AM:

    "...Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut." Isn't it well understood that the Bush tax cuts actually made the Federal tax system more progressive (in the sense that people with greater income bore a greater percentage of the tax burden)? Its well-cited, e.g. here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_policy_of_the_George_W._Bush_administration