Promises, Promises and the Knowing Voter - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Promises, Promises and the Knowing Voter

The only thing likely to match this election’s negativity will be voters’ cynicism. This is already clear from both candidates’ highly negative public approval ratings and voters’ belief that neither will keep promises. The upshot of voters’ detachment from the candidates is that they may well find it is mutual, once the next president takes office.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post headlined a story “Many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises — and they don’t care.” Shockingly, no mention was made of the public’s disbelief in Clinton’s veracity and what that might mean.

Voters not believing politicians is not news… except, apparently, to the news media. For the American public at large, George Washington — to whom “I cannot tell a lie” is popularly attributed — was probably America’s last thoroughly believable presidential candidate. The rest of them fall short in varying degrees of Washington’s mark.

This year’s pair is falling particularly short of Washington’s standard. A recent Rasmussen poll (released June 1, of 1,000 likely voters, MOE +/- 3%) found that 30% of respondents thought Trump more honest than most other politicians. Only 15% found Clinton to be so. Yet by wide margins, both Trump (45%) and Clinton (46%) were found to be less honest than most other politicians.

“Most other politicians” is a low bar, but both easily passed beneath it. What it shows is that voters are willing to accept something less — if not simply less.

What presidential voters are looking for — especially in this election — are the candidates’ policy directions. In America’s two-party system, there is generally a decided difference in the candidates’ approaches. So while the media may hang on the words of every promise, voters only need to discern their preferred of two directions.

In a decision bound by limited choices and their own predilections, voters do not need much information to reach their conclusions. Further, voters are well aware of the additional limits imposed on a president’s campaign promises once he’s been elected.

Washington’s political gridlock — almost uninterrupted for decades now — is the most obvious brake that reality puts on a president’s former promises. However, campaign promises’ limitations go well beyond political stalemate.

Foreign and domestic events and the economy all can derail a president’s promised agenda. Overlay this on America’s constitutional system, which was designed to thwart rapid change, and it is little wonder campaigning promises are so often governing casualties.

Voters may not always articulate this realization, but they tend to act on it. Once they have discerned a candidate’s directional intent, they have the information they need. Both Trump and Sanders have capitalized on this in 2016. Establishment candidates, most notably on the Republican side, had campaigns awash in policy papers, but bereft of energized supporters. Instead, voter interest and energy flowed to those candidates giving the best directional cues.

The final factor shaping voters’ limited attention to campaign promises is that their general election choice was frequently not their preferred one.

This year, both nominees struggled for months to reach majorities within their own parties. Each party represents roughly just a third of the electorate. This means the nominees have gone through a long process of accumulating support from those not originally supporting them and now must do so among the remaining one-third of the electorate.

Here, the 2016 campaign is not dissimilar from others. The result of such a prolonged and painstaking process is that the winning campaign assembles a coalition largely comprised of voters who were never invested in the particular candidate — never taking he nominee’s promises at face value — and now satisfying themselves with second- or third-best choices offering the more appealing directional cues.

What separates this election from past ones are both nominees’ high negatives, which is making voters’ reliance on directional cues even more pronounced. According to further Rasmussen polling (released 6/17), Clinton’s favorability rating is just 38%, while Trump’s is 37%.

Voters’ high negative rating and lack of faith in the candidates’ promises leave the electorate with little choice but to be almost entirely focused on what policy directions the candidates will likely follow if elected — not the specifics of their policy promises.

However, just as voters are less attached to the candidates’ promises than usual, so too either candidate will be less moored to them once in office. If the promises did not deliver the voters, then the winner will feel less compelled to deliver on the promises.

While this will give the eventual president more flexibility, it will also mean the next president can be less accountable. So if cynicism is currently high when it comes to the presidential contenders, it could quickly become even higher when it comes to the next president.

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