What matters in a President: A framework for evaluating politicians
As citizens, we only get a glimpse into our presidential candidates. We are tasked with making a huge decision on who should lead the free world based on the limited information that is twisted by allies, opponents and the media. How should we evaluate a presidential candidate? What factors matter? How much should we weigh one factor against another? This is something each person eventually decides for themselves…or more often than not decides to not decide by not voting in primaries. It is both the beauty and the mess of democracy.
I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about this question. Honestly, I’ve only recently begun to try and get a bit scientific about it. What follows is a basic framework for identifying factors that matter to me. I’ve tried to stick with things that are measurable since things like integrity (which I would love to be able to measure) are nearly impossible to measure given the information we currently have on candidates.
I offer this in case it helps anyone else get clarity on what matters to them.
FACTORS THAT MATTER
Raises money from small donors. Where a person spends their time reveals their priorities. Money is, unfortunately, necessary to get elected in this day and age. That said, a politician who raises more money from small donors reveals they prioritize ordinary people over the wealthy. Data: OpenSecrets tracks all fundraising data, see the 2020 presidential report here.
Works with the other party. An increase in partisanship has led to an increase in gridlock. Fewer solutions are being passed at a time when our problems are growing larger than ever. The best solutions incorporate ideas from different perspectives. A politician who is willing to listen to other perspectives and work with the other party not only increases their chances of developing quality solutions, but also getting them passed. Data: Georgetown University has developed a sophisticated way to measure bipartisanship, see scores here.
Gets shit done. Some politicians are skilled at shepherding bills through the crazy bureaucratic process to actually become law. They have the determination, relationships and problem-solving ability to navigate the complexities of passing legislation. We need more politicians with this skill to help us solve our biggest challenges. Data: Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia developed a sophisticated way to measure legislator effectiveness, see scores here.
Supports reform that will depolarize the country. I think toxic partisanship is the single biggest obstacle to politicians passing big laws that matter. The technical details that dictate the way we vote, draw districts and campaign for office have a big impact on whether extreme or reasonable candidates win an election. I want politicians who support changes that would make it easy for reasonable people to get elected because more reasonable people in office mean more solutions passed and a better life for all. Data: A famed Harvard professor has graded each 2020 presidential candidate on their democracy reform stances, see grades here.
Experience. I’d love a politician with executive, legislative, foreign affairs and military experience all rolled into one human. A former CEO, governor, district attorney, congressperson, diplomat and marine would get me real excited. While I don’t think specific experience is necessary, having been there before and deeply understanding how each of those institutions operates makes it more likely for a candidate to be successful in their role as our leader. Data: Honestly, I think Wikipedia is one of the best sources to look at a candidate’s experience.
Non-negotiables. There are only a few policy stances that are non-negotiable to me. These are more general principles rather than specific policies. For example, I believe climate change is the biggest threat to humanity. If a candidate meets all the criteria above but does not believe in climate change, I wouldn’t support them. That said, while I won’t compromise on a few principles, I’m flexible on the details. What I mean by that is I have a few opinions on the best way to mitigate climate change, like taxing carbon, but I’m open to other ways to address it. Data: Good 2020 presidential policy guides include: Axios, ProCon, On The Issues, NPR, Politico, Washington Post.
Negotiable policy stances. I have followed politics very closely my whole life, so I have lots of opinions regarding specific policies. That said, I care less about certain issues. I’m less concerned with the details of a complex trade deal than I am with how we might entirely restructure our healthcare system. Getting clear with myself on which issues I care about and to what degree, makes it much easier to evaluate politicians. Data: Good 2020 presidential policy guides include: Axios, ProCon, On The Issues, NPR, Politico, Washington Post.
WHERE SCIENCE MEETS ART
Now that we have some factors, the question becomes, how do you compare them against each other? I wish I had a better answer, I’m still puzzling over this one. For simplicity’s sake, you could give each candidate a grade A – F in each category. Then take the average grade and see who comes out on top.