Electing Presidents

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HNN Guide: Who Should Be the Next Commander-in-Chief? Moral Leader-in-Chief? Educator-in-Chief? Statesman-in-Chief? Politician-in-Chief?

What qualities should one look for in a presidential candidate? Since the advent of television, many Americans seem to have decided that presidents should be selected on the basis of their personality and image: how they come across on television. The way many Americans choose presidents today marks a sharp departure from the past. While personality and image were always important factors, they were usually not decisive until TV came along.* Before TV, voters placed a high emphasis on a candidate's resume and political party affiliation.

In the current polarized political climate party affiliation, to be sure, is still important. But how voters pick their party is different from in the past when economic considerations drove their decision.** Today it is often cultural factors that shape a voter's preference for a party rather than, say, membership in a union.

Studies conducted by the University of Michigan demonstrate that voters today often know less about the issues than their counterparts forty years ago. Several factors are responsible for this decline. Three stand out: (1)television, which transmits emotion well but not information, (2) the weakness of the party system, which formerly helped voters identify particular parties with particular policies, and (3) the collape of the union movement, which formerly helped educate voters about the issues.

The role of the media in this decline is unquestionable. The media focus on sound bites, gotcha journalism and personality obscures the issues voters need to understand to make sensible decisions.

The great journalist and historian Theodore White used to say that presidential elections turned on three issues: war and peace, bread and butter, black and white. No doubt these issues remain important. But today elections are just as likely to turn on media caricatures of the candidates, including such superficial questions as whether they seem comfortable on TV.

To help readers overcome the media's emphasis on superficial questions HNN has prepared this guide to campaigns past, which highlights the serious questions voters should be asking as they make their decisions.

*Political scientists are divided about the extent to which voters today base their votes on personality and image. Some scholars insist that voters actually are influenced chiefly by issues.

**In the South where the Democratic Party was predominate following the end of Reconstruction, economics played a minor role in party affiliation.


Qualities We Should Look for in a President

What's a Resume Got to Do with It? Richard Brookhiser


For 2008, An American Themistocles David Brooks


Reading List

3 Great Books About the Presidency Stephen Hess


Where Have All the Voters Gone? A Series by Thomas Patterson

Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?

Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?

Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?

Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy

Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?


Winning Elections

The Keys to the Presidency by Allan Lichtman

HNN Poll: What Factors Are Likely to Shape the Election of 2004?


Presidential Debates

What Works (And Doesn't) at the Presidential Debates Gil Troy

Presidential Debates: HNN Scrapbook Alex Bosworth

What Can Happen When Bush Meets Kerry Ian C. Friedman

The Big Question that Needs to Be Asked at the Presidential Debates Tom Palaima

“Getting Medieval” with the Presidential Debates Dyan Elliott

History Proves that Presidential Debates Matter Rick Shenkman


Rating Presidents

Presidency: Historians Vs. George W. Bush by Robert S. McElvaine

The Worst President Ever on Civil Liberties? by Samuel Walker

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Modern Presidency? by Marc Landy & Sid Milkis

Presidency: Which Presidents Do the Presidents Themselves Like? by Thomas Fleming

Presidency: How Are Presidents Rated? by William Thompson

Presidency: How Do African-American Scholars Rank Presidents? by Ronald Walters


Presidents: What Made Them Great (Or Not So Great)

Presidency: Why Are Great Men Not Chosen President? by Lord Bryce

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Abraham Lincoln? by Matthew Pinsker

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Harry Truman? by Alonzo Hamby

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Jimmy Carter? by Stephen Hess

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administrations of TR and JFK? by Bruce Miroff

Presidency: How Do Historians Assess Ronald Reagan? by Chester Pach

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Dwight Eisenhower? by Fred Greenstein

Presidency: What It Takes to Be President (Eisenhower case study) by Rick Shenkman

Presidency: How do Historians Evaluate the Administration of John Kennedy? by Thomas Reeves

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Lyndon Johnson? by Robert Dallek

Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Richard Nixon? by Mel Small

Presidency: Why I Think History Will Be Kind to Nixon by Walter A. McDougall

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Christina R Justice - 12/1/2004

When is America going to look at the moral fiber of a man before going to the polls? Don't they realize that a person lacking morals, even if they promise the moon, will rarely deliver it....or vote for it!

Ralph E. Luker - 2/19/2004

I can accept that, Oscar. Appearances have their place.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/18/2004

All true, Ralph.

But JFK made serving your country, or even working in the government, seem noble.
What president since has done that so well?

I'll put my feelings toward him this way. Kennedy inspired more greatness than he attained. I don't think it is altogether wrong to credit him with what he inspired, even as we rightly note his flaws.

Bryan Murphy - 2/14/2004

Sick economy, as in ballooning trade and budget deficits, nothing but waste in terms of $5 billion aircraft carriers that were strategically obsolete before vietnam. And a bunch of no-good republicans using politcal connects to rob america blind. But, lets not let actual science get in the way of you assuming that your little rural corner of america is indicative of the entire top down operation.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/14/2004

Give me a break, Dave. Name the particular qualities which made JFK great and the particular qualities that made WJC so awful. The truth is that you cover JFK with nostalgia and ignore the flaws. He was responsible for the Bay of Pigs tragedy. He mistakenly engaged the United States in Viet Nam. His administration was responsible for the FBI's intrusion on MLK's privacy. Indeed, the FBI ranged wildly out of control under JFK because J. Edgar Hoover had the goods on JFK's indiscretions. I could go on ..., but I wouldn't want to "besmirch Jack."

Dave Livingston - 1/10/2004

What sick economy? You're nuts. Here in Colorado Springs business & construction are continuing to boom. My securities portfolio was up 35.96% between 12/31/02 & 12/31/03 & still is growing in (paper) value. Granted, dividends are reivested in most of the securities in my account, but that is but a tiny proportion of the growth in value. & you want to mess around toadying to some expat billionaire, concerned solely with his own greed? No thank you, my vote will go to Geo. W.

Dave Livingston - 1/10/2004

Here John Kipper is accurate in his assessment that a) Ike won based on his WWII command service, b) Goldwater lost because the Left successfully demonized him as a warmonger, c) Ronnie won because of his optimism when Jimmy Carter was proving to be such a ninney. Poor Jimmy couldn't quite undersdtand why the American people rejected hinm for a second term, when we had 20% interest rates & 20% inflation, the attempt to recuse our hostages in Iran failed & gloomy Jimmy was complaining publicly about a "malise" in America.

But IMHO John Kipper is in error to judge that the supposed missile gap was the reason J.F.K. won. He won because he was much more attractive, charismatic, than Nixon, he was able to defuse the Catholic issue and supposedly Nixon was hurt by his 5 O'clock shadow during those the first TV debates between presidential candidates & of course, it may be Richard Daley stole the election in Chicago for J.F.K.

In any event, I truly pity all of you who weren't around during the Kennedy White House--it was a wonderefully magical time, except for Jimmy Hoffa & some Wall Street fat cats. Regardless the fadishness of deconstructing history & the personal characters of the dead that prevails today, the J.F.K. White House was glorious. It was a wonderful time to be an American abroad, especially in Europe, Latin America & in Africa. And the White House was beautiful with Jack, Jackie, Caroline & John-John in residence.

Indeed, that is one reason I so despise Clinton--his attempt to claim the mantale of J.F.K., but all he did was besmirch Jack.

David Salmanson - 1/7/2004

At what point in the article did they argue this? At most, the argued that "bread and butter" was one of three factors that influenced modern elections, the other two being war and peace and race relations. Your examples all fit into war and peace.

ThinkTank - 1/7/2004

I think Soros is on the right track and can help set America's economy straight. Greenspan has been too quick to use interest rate cuts to disguise a seriously sick economy.

John Kipper - 1/6/2004

I am curious. By what evidence do you conclude that past voters (how far in the past, which voters?) voted their econcomic concerns rather than other considerations? Was this the case in 1944? I doubt it. Was Eisenhower elected because of his economic plan or his pledge to travel to Korea and his immense stature as the victor of the war in Europe? It seems to me that Kennedy was elected both because of his specious "missile gap" and his call for altruism. Undoubtedly Johnson was elected because Americans were dubious about Goldwater's cold war stance. None of these things had anything to do with individual economic well-being. Further, to skip ahead in time a bit, I would submit that Regan was elected, and re-elected because of his optimism, his belief in American values, evidently shared by the bulk of the population, and his rejection of appeassement with the former Soviet Union, now ingloriously deceased.

I would suggest the your positing that economic considerations are always decsive in presidential elections is naive at best and self-deluding at worst. Especially when the so-called economic interests of the individual are determined by self-appointed pundits and academics.