MYTH: Making Promises is Pointless, Since Candidates Don't Keep Their Promises Anyway
We believe that hopeful future presidents, like all job candidates, will say anything their prospective employers want to hear in hopes of securing the gig.
George H.W. Bush going back on his no tax hike promise, Barack Obama's failure to close Gitmo, Clinton's inability to understand the definition of the word "is." -- these people speak only in lies.
Statistically, those failures were actually the exception, not the rule. Political scientists in the 1980s set out to evaluate the promise-keeping history of American presidents and found that 75 percent of pre-election pledges made by presidents Wilson through Carter were met. Most people are lucky to keep that kind of ratio going in a marriage, let alone while running a country. And yes, this trend still holds true with our modern leaders.
For instance, during the 2008 campaign, Obama made 508 distinct promises for his term in office. As of right now, he's successfully followed through on 193 of those promises. That sounds a little low, but you have to take into account the fact that "president" doesn't mean "dictator." A president can't just do anything he wants -- he has to work with Congress, and because Congress isn't exclusively populated by Obama's friends, it means that he needs to compromise. Which he did, on another 79 of those promises. Another 44 have stalled, while 102 are still "in the works." Add all that up, and you'll see that Obama at least made the effort to fulfill some 418 of his 508 campaign promises. Nearly half of those efforts have, so far, been successful.
MYTH: Campaigns Run Mindless Attack Ads Instead of Giving Us Substance
How fast do you reach for the remote these days when you hear creepy music over a black and white picture of a politician? "Congressman Smith voted for over 1,200 tax increases in his first year in office ..." If you live in an American battleground state, you'll see 12 of these corny political attack ads an hour, even if you have the TV off.
When exposed to a barrage of negativity, we may feign disgust, but are actually more likely to show up at the polls. Oh, and we're better informed, too -- in one study, people who watched attack ads knew more about the issues of the election than others. After all, negative commercials prompt fact-checking and force opponents to issue a response to clear their names. So what some would call deplorable smear campaigns that belong in the gutter, others would call a dialogue. And it's the voters who benefit.
For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain claimed that Barack Obama's economic plan would raise taxes for small business owners. Obama hit back with an ad that better explained his platform, then one-upped McCain by asserting that McCain's tax plan had a health credit that was also coming from increased taxes. So both candidates forced the other guy to explain himself, bringing more information to the voters. But maybe more importantly, negative messages force us to listen.
MYTH: Campaign Spending Is Out of Control
FALSE - (When it's in relation to the spending done to advertise other products)
Now here's one that seems impossible to argue. The numbers are freaking astronomical.
President Obama and Governor Romney raised $769 million and $642 million, respectively (as of September 30, 2012) -- that's $1.4 billion total, for a freaking political campaign. And that's not even counting the tens of millions poured into political action committees.
Well...that's kind of the point. It's really important. Yet when it comes to spending, most industries put politics to shame. For example, in 2011, General Motors spent $1.78 billion in advertising to be the No. 1 car company in America, which is a fraction of the
nearly $1 billion spent by the entire auto industry. Between the two of them, Verizon and AT&T spent $3.5 billion to be the top two companies in their sector. And $1.34 billion was spent on makeup ads just by L'Oreal. Political campaigns are just marketing campaigns, and they have to buy their ad time just like Toyota does (forcing TV stations to give the time away would bankrupt them, since it would be pushing aside paid advertisers for unpaid political ads). And that means that they feel the impact of increasing communications expenses the same as everyone else, regardless of industry: new technology platforms and media outlets, a growing population, inflation, etc.
Yes, the $1.4 billion price tag for 2012 seems like a lot compared to previous elections, like 1996, when Clinton and Bob Dole spent just $90 million combined. That's quite a bit, but only about one-third of what Americans spent that year on potato chips, as one Federal Elections Commission member found. The 2000 campaign cost George W. Bush and Al Gore about $143 million total ... which was less than one-tenth of the amount spent on fast food advertising the next year. Again, it's all relative.
MYTH: We Judge Candidates Based on Silly "Gaffes" Instead of Real Issues
Judging by the amount of media coverage they receive, you'd assume that political gaffes are the only things that matter in an election cycle. Any time a politician accidentally slips and says something stupid, condescending or offensive, you better believe that all of the armchair political scientists you work with will show up the next day saying, "Well, Biden just made a gaffe and called all women lazy; this race is as good as done."
The truth is, Biden could accidentally fart out of his mouth and it wouldn't move the needle an inch. Gaffes get a ton of play in the media, and while it's true that candidates in a primary can lose their shot at the big job if a brain fart stains their mouth-undies too much (Rick Perry, we're talking about you), the same rules don't seem to apply to the actual election. Michael Tessler, an associate professor at Brown University, set out earlier this year to see if he could discern any significant impact from a particularly nasty Obama gaffe: his claim that the private sector was "doing fine" amid one of the worst economic crises in history.
Tessler polled a thousand people -- those who'd heard about the gaffe, those who hadn't and (presumably) those who were so sick of hearing the word "gaffe" that they punched the interviewer right in his damn face. In the end, there was no substantial difference in political preference between the groups that were and weren't aware of Obama's highly publicized slip-up. A gaffe that had dominated the news cycle for days didn't change the outcome of the election one jot. Why does this happen? Well, the bottom line is that the kind of people who would be swayed by an offensive gaffe -- that is, the people who haven't followed politics closely enough to have made up their minds on a candidate -- are precisely the kind of people who aren't even aware when a gaffe happens, because they simply aren't paying attention to all of the political talk shows, blogs, etc. that endlessly discuss them. Meanwhile, the kind of people who do pay close enough attention to political races to actually notice these gaffes are, statistically speaking, more well-informed to begin with and have already made up their minds, so they won't be swayed by just one gaffe.
Which might explain why Romney was able to tell off half the country without seeing his presidential hopes collapse (and in fact took the lead not long after).
MYTH: Voter Turnout Is Plummeting, and Voter Apathy Is at an All-Time High
FALSE - (It's been on the rise)
One story that news stations always pick up during an election year is the voter turnout, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. After the Nixon/Humphrey election of 1968, a year that also saw the assassinations of two major political figures, the U.S. was just plain tired, and Americans decided that they'd rather stay home and nap for the next election in 1972. Turnout dropped like a rock, going from around 61 percent to 55 percent, and it just kept going downhill from there. At its lowest, 1996, only around 48 percent of voters got in on the action, and according to the numbers, we're only now returning to the same voter levels as 1972. So we're not exactly doing great. Clearly, election seasons of mudslinging, boasting, and endless spending have disillusioned voters.
It's not that we're bad at motivating voters; it's that we're bad at math. People have been trying to figure out why turnout dropped for some time now. Part of the reason for the initial 1972 drop is the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which made 18-year-olds eligible to vote, and we all know how much we can count on them to do something important.
But the other problem is just the way we calculate it. Voter turnout is generally measured by taking the total number of voters in an election and dividing it by the total over-18 population of the United States. The problem is, not everyone is eligible to vote; as Futurama reminded us, anyone who has been convicted of a felony is ineligible to vote. There are also numerous immigrants who aren't quite eligible to vote yet, along with overseas Americans who still retain the right to vote in our elections. If you measure the total eligible population, even though there are some dips and rises from year to year, the numbers look much better.
In fact, as of 2008, turnout was as good as it was in 1968, which is great. Our ability to properly calculate and talk about voter turnout? Not so much.
MYTH: It All Just Comes Down to a Few "Swing" Voters Anyway
You've no doubt been told before that swing voters completely determine elections. Lifelong Democrats will vote for Democrats, Republicans will vote for Republicans, but a candidate lives and dies by his ability to persuade the elusive third group -- the swing demographic. These "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads" and "jai alai uncles" don't make up their minds until the last possible minute. We view these people as electoral cheat codes: If a candidate can mash the right number of their buttons, he'll unlock a major power-up and convince all of the swingers to swing his way. But how many of you have ever actually met a swing voter? That is, someone who honestly could go either way this election, and also actually plans to vote?
Well, if you find one, shake his hand -- his vote is apparently the only one that matters.
While those people certainly exist, they don't fall into any large categorized groups, and there's no evidence that they make up a meaningful chunk of the electorate or decide the outcome. National elections don't hinge on swaying a few undecideds; they hinge on activating unmotivated party members. Barack Obama isn't out there to persuade Republicans. He's out there to remind Democrats. Winning is all about convincing the mass of apathetic people who agree with you to stop screwing around long enough to wait in a line full of old people and cast their vote...for you!
MYTH: If the President-elect were to die before he or she is sworn in, the Secretary of Defense would take over until another emergency election was held.
Turns out the 20th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually addresses that scenario. It says that if the President-elect dies before he's sworn in, the Vice President-elect will be sworn in as president. Now you know.