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Jewish World Review
Feb. 7, 2008
/ 1 Adar I 5768
The mystery in the voting booth
The know-it-alls, it turns out, didn't know it all.
Months of predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, the presidential
nominations weren't all sewn up on Super Tuesday. John McCain didn't put it
away. Mike Huckabee hasn't been reduced to political irrelevancy. Once again --
as with earlier forecasts of Hillary Clinton's implosion in New Hampshire, Rudy
Giuliani's commanding national appeal, and Mitt Romney's untouchable leads in
the early states -- the politicos proposed but the voters disposed.
In the final hours of his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton spoke
repeatedly of the "great mystery of American democracy," by which an ordinary
voter is transformed on Election Day into "the most powerful citizen in
America." I haven't agreed with Clinton on much, but he was on to something
that day. For all the sophisticated tools and technology with which modern
candidates wage their campaigns, what happens in the voting booth is still, so
often, a mystery.
Part of that mystery is just what a candidate needs to pass the voters'
threshold test of presidential believability. On paper, Romney seemed to have
all the necessary ingredients: brilliant private-sector success, a spotless and
wholesome personal life, ample gifts of intelligence and charm, proven appeal
to Blue State voters, extremely deep pockets, and the benefits of massive
Yet at no point in this seemingly endless campaign has he managed to dominate
the Republican race. Instead he finds himself fighting to catch up not just to
McCain, whose campaign was all but abandoned for dead last summer, but even, in
some states, to Huckabee.
What is it that pushes a candidate over that threshold of viability? Is it
powerful media support? For weeks, many of the most influential voices on the
right, especially on talk radio, have lacerated McCain, derided Huckabee, and
fervently championed Romney. Yet voters in state after state yesterday ignored
the talkers, choosing McCain or Huckabee over the former Massachusetts
Is it the "right" stand on issues that makes or breaks a candidate? Issues are
obviously of great significance, yet they don't seem to be the key to this
year's campaign, either. Andrew Kohut, head of polling for the Pew Research
Center, told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that in the race between Clinton
and Barack Obama, "there is no correlation in the exit polls so far between the
issues people think are important and the candidates they vote for." Among
Republicans surveyed, McCain has often been the least likely to share voters'
positions on issues. For all that, he has become the frontrunner in the GOP
All theories about the presidential race should be treated as suspect, but here
in a nutshell is mine: Voters this year are seeking character. More than
popularity, more than ideological compatibility, what they crave is a candidate
of honor, integrity, and decency. Perhaps that is why McCain and Obama continue
to ride high, when so many others have left the field.
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