Thursday, March 13, 2008

Political Choices Happen in a Context

Matthew Yglesias brushes against something that has bothered me about political talk for a long time:

The poll indicates that Clinton will do much better than Obama in the Democratic primary but Obama will do slightly better than Clinton in a general election. There's nothing paradoxical or even counterintuitive about that, but somehow we've gotten twisted around in knots over this sort of thing.
Exactly. There is nothing paradoxical or counterintuitive about it because voter decisions occur in a context, that context being a choice between two candidates. Preferring candidate X in one hypothetical race does not imply preferring candidate X in any other hypothetical race. There's nothing strange to be seen here, no oddity to be explained, no confusion to be dispelled.

Note this is separate from the question of whether people give good reasons to prefer a candidate in a given race. It is irrational on grounds of foreseeable public policy consequences for a voter to prefer Obama over McCain but McCain over Clinton since Obama and Clinton are very close on policy positions. But policy preferences don't underwrite every voter's decision, even though I think they should; people can and do choose between candidates for all kinds of reasons.

Back in 2004, people would ask me if I really liked John Kerry. Well, no, I didn't really like John Kerry, and I freely admitted it. On top of the shortcomings in his voting record and policy positions, I thought he was a funny-looking humanoid and an extraordinarily uninspiring speaker. But I would vote for Kerry in a heartbeat if the alternative was George W. Bush. And the reasons I would choose Kerry would lead me to prefer any Democrat over George W. Bush, even if the Democrat was a half-eaten potato or Hillary Clinton.

Speaking of which, don't blame me, I voted for Kerry.

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