How to Choose Among So Many Democratic Candidates

As of today (May 4, 2019) we Spirited Reasoners counted no less than twenty-one Democrats running for President of the United States. These include a former Vice President, a former Cabinet official, some past and current members of Congress, a sprinkling of governors, a few mayors, an entrepreneur, and an activist author. The number could grow still higher, with a former state legislator (Stacy Abrams) and a business leader (Howard Schultz) among a half-dozen others still testing the waters.

Most political analysts seem interested only in the horserace, as in “Which of these candidates is most likely to win?” Spirited Reasoners, on the other hand, are more interested in finding the person best suited to serve as President of the United States. What, then, is the most rational approach for us to take in deciding among them?

Let’s consider a few alternative approaches:

  1. Which candidate would stand the best chance of winning the general election? Those who look at the election from this perspective—including almost everyone in the mainstream media—are most interested in (a) early preference polls vis-à-vis the other Democratic candidates, (b) early opinion polls demonstrating how a particular candidate would fare in a raise against Donald Trump, (c) how much total money the respective candidates have raised from donors, and (d) the number of donors (as opposed to the dollar amount, thereby indicating the breadth of each candidate’s appeal.) While Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have jumped to an early lead in preference polls, those who remember the last 20 or so election cycles may observe that those having early “name recognition” almost never retained their leads once actual voters weighed in to the primary season. Some former early poll, and money, leaders whose names come to mind include Muskie, Hart, and Cuomo, none of whom was destined to become their party’s nominee.
  2. Which candidate takes positions on the issues that agree with mine? Those who look at the election from this perspective might see it as a rational alternative to the choice described above. These folks could, in left-brain terms, assign a numerical weight to each issue they view as important, then assign a percentage to each candidate depending on how much that candidate seems to champion that issue, then multiply the weights time the percentages to see which candidate would be most agreeable. Sounds a like plan. Except for one problem: issues change over time. The issue that might grab me, as a voter, today is unlikely to be the same issue I will care most about in November of 2020, and even more unlikely to be the issue which dominates the incoming President’s first term. For example, the main campaign issues in the 1960 Presidential campaign included JFK’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church and the status of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The issues which dominated the first year of his term in office tended to involve Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Civil Rights.
  3. Which candidate has leadership and character traits best suited for the Presidency? Those who look at the election from this perspective think back to our finest Presidents—people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—and argue that we should elect a person best suited to handle whatever issues are likely to emerge. The obvious problem with this approach is that we are so often presented with choices between one corrupt politician and another—the dilemma we often call “the lesser of two evils.” Is it even possible to find a winning candidate these days whose leadership and character traits might approach those of our finest Presidents from the past?

I would argue that we should not settle for any of the approaches described above. Instead, the best approach for Spirited Reasoners is to use a combination of all three, and to do so in reverse.

Here’s what I mean.

Start by finding those candidates whose leadership and character traits most closely resemble those of our nation’s finest Presidents of the past. With that handful of candidates in mind, we then look at their respective stands on the issues. But instead of asking “where do they stand on each issue” we ask a better question: “why do they take the stands that they do on these issues?” Do they engage in research-based decision-making? Are they thoughtful and reflective?  Knowing that the issues will change, we want to know which candidates are most likely to approach these new problems with wisdom rather than political expediency. Then, finally, when we are left with only two or three choices, we ask the question about winning. Which of these highly qualified individuals has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump?

Sounds like a lot of work, but Spirited Reasoners are up to the task!