James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
With the Republican nomination now settled, electoral analysts are rolling out their models of voter behavior to predict the outcome of the general election. These "scientific" efforts at prophecy, which have become increasingly elaborate and arcane, boil down in the end to gauging voters' evaluations of three simple questions for each candidate: What have you done? What will you do? and Who are you?
What have you done? — or, as Ronald Reagan famously asked voters in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" — is the main question applied to the candidate of the incumbent party, and especially, as in this race, to an incumbent himself. Our first scientific analyst of presidential elections, Alexander Hamilton, noted that the public observes "the tendency of his measures, . . . thence to form an experimental estimate of their merits." Current academic modelers refer to this dimension as "retrospective voting" or as a "referendum" on the past.
What will you do? is the question asked first of the challenger. A challenger's record — say, as governor — may be informative, but the challenger, unlike the president, has not directly affected the lives of most people. Voters therefore want to know what the challenger would do, so that they may compare him with the incumbent and judge whether the challenger's intended course of action warrants, in Hamilton's felicitous term, the incumbent's "dismission." Voters for the most part are future-oriented creatures. A challenger who runs as a potted plant, counting on people voting solely to reject the incumbent, had better pray for something as awful as a depression. Otherwise he will stand little chance. It may be a quibble, though not a useless one, to insist that there is very little pure "retrospective voting." The incumbent's record serves mostly as an indicator — an "experimental estimate" — of his future course and of whether "to continue him in the station, in order to prolong the utility of his talents and virtues."
Finally, the question Who are you? reminds us that people vote not just on the basis of a record or a future program, but, given the peculiar challenges of the presidency, for a person with certain qualities. Voters wonder about a candidate's readiness to handle those unforeseeable crises that inevitably emerge (what Hillary Clinton unforgettably referred to as the 3 a.m. phone call); they think about a candidate's qualities or virtues and how these correlate with good performance in office; and they consider what values a candidate symbolizes or embodies, such as being "a man of the people."
The complex judgments relating to this personal dimension may weigh less heavily in the voters' decision than their evaluation of the other two factors. But what takes place during presidential campaigns — the occasional revelation of new information about the candidates' past and the scrutiny given to how candidates hold up under pressure — testifies to the importance of the judgments of character and virtue. A notable attribute or a marked deficiency can determine the outcome of the contest.
The dimension of personal qualities promises in 2012 to be highly interesting. It stands out, in the first place, because of the things that seem to be off the table. One of them is consideration of the candidates' military records, which has been an issue in every contest dating back at least to 1988, whether it was a matter of the candidates' heroism or valor (George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain) or whether questions were raised about service itself or special treatment (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama served in the military, and we will likely hear nothing about this issue. Also off the table are matters relating to candidates' personal turmoil, substance abuse, or infidelity. Search the nation, nay the universe, and you will not find two more scrupulous and exemplary family men than Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. If there is any issue to be raised on this account, it will likely focus on their treatment of the family dog. As for substances — Obama's youthful experimentation aside — Mitt Romney does not drink even beer, and President Obama during his famous beer summit looked like he didn't know how to.
Finally, there is very little chance that the issue of being able to handle an emergency, another matter that figured prominently in many recent campaigns, will be raised in this one. We will hear criticisms, to be sure, of some of President Obama's foreign policy decisions, but this is not the same thing as doubt about the capacity and readiness to act. After all, President Obama took the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call in authorizing the bin Laden raid, and we have the official photos, released in grainy black and white, to prove the point. On the other side, even though Mitt Romney has never directly had to handle a case of this kind, his evident maturity, steadiness, and long record of decision-making render it highly unlikely that anyone will charge him with being unprepared.
In light of the absence of these matters, which made recent campaigns so bitter on a personal level — going right to questions of integrity and manliness — we are likely in certain respects to see a much cleaner race in 2012. Which isn't to say that other elements related to personal attributes will not rise to the surface.