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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008: Bone up for the presidential election season

You'll hear a lot of horserace stories in the news, especially starting with the Iowa Caucuses on Thursday. Are you ready to filter the crap and pick the right candidate?

Here's how to make a decision without watching the shit on TV. First, start with a candidate selector game that asks you several questions and tells you which candidate is the best match. I recommend the USA Today match game the most.
  • Candidate selectors - these tools ask a series of questions and match you to the best candidate based on your answers. You can get really stuck if there's not a good match for your specific policy preference, but it gets you close enough to read up on the candidate.
    • Selectsmart - asks questions about the Iraq War, civil liberties, and more, and includes a slider to evaluate how important each issue is. Limitations - most often there are only two or three choices on the spectrum for each issue. The civil liberties questions poses a false choice.
    • Minnesota Public Radio - a more limited field of questions, but with a choice to indicate the level of importance of your answer. Limitations - Answers on immigration and education clearly reflect the individualized statement of candidates: accurate, but almost impossible to select from.
    • USA Today Candidate Match - a pretty interface allows you to see your best matches as you take the quiz. You can mouseover each candidate's position on each issue to get the details as well as adjust the sliders to indicate which issues are most important.
Once you've narrowed the field, learn more about your top picks at the NY Times issues page - this is a nice outline of the actual candidates' statements on the most prominent issues of the campaign (as selected by the NY Times).

Finally, try not to listen to news about the campaigns. Media has a bias toward two things in a campaign: movement and numbers, neither of which will help you pick the candidate who will best represent your views. I'll illustrate:
  • Movement - Barack Obama is "gaining" or "faltering." Joe Biden is "stumbling" or "fading." Elections are not sports matches and the winner has to do a lot more than hoist a shiny trophy. Tom Brady may lead the best football team ever, but his momentum won't get us better health care.
  • Numbers - there are two numbers to report in politics, money and opinion polls.
    • Money - Some of the biggest asshats in history were rich (Rockefeller, JP Morgan), having money does not a good president make.
    • Opinion polls are pseudo-scientific when reported by the media. They are snapshots of a single instant in time, already dated by the time results are reported (polling was usually done over the past several days). Howard Dean led in every poll taken in Iowa in 2004. He didn't win. John Kerry always polled as the most electable Democrat. He lost. Get it?

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