Why We Choose Presidents Based on the Wrong Issues

In a recent Slate column, John Dickerson points out that presidential elections typically focus too much on issues the president has little control over and too little on those that he has more effect on:

Nothing tests a president’s temperament like foreign affairs. Though this presidential campaign has only recently touched on the topic, the lack of focus points to another flaw in our election system. If we arranged our campaigns around what a president actually can control, we wouldn’t spend the majority of our time talking about the economy, where a president is a bit player.

Not so in foreign affairs. A president is the last word on decisions regarding military strikes, covert operations, or how to treat political prisoners. George W. Bush signed off on every prisoner that faced enhanced interrogation techniques. Barack Obama personally approves every drone strike of a high-value terrorist target. When the president serves as the country’s chief diplomat, he acts almost entirely alone.

Dickerson exaggerates a little when he suggests the president “acts almost entirely alone” on key foreign policy issues. But he certainly has much more control over them than over short-term economic trends. Yet the latter are the biggest factor in most elections. Voters also tend to ignore or underemphasize other issues that the president has a great deal of control over: issues such as judicial nominations and appointments to federal regulatory agencies.

Why are voters myopic in this way? Because, thanks to widespread political ignorance, most voters have difficulty telling the difference between issues that the president can affect and those he can’t. That’s why studies show that voters routinely reward and punish politicians for events they have little or no control over, including trends in the world economy, shark attacks and droughts, and even victories by the local sports team.

Voters would not do this if they were well-informed about politics and public policy. But for the vast majority, it’s actually rational to be ignorant, and to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know.

UPDATE: For those who want to argue that an Obama victory this year would prove that voters have given up overemphasizing short-term economic trends, I would point out that his performance in the polls is roughly on par with the predictions of economic models of presidential contests based on data from past elections.