If Only You Could See What I've Seen With Your Eyes

Matt Yglesias notes how unpleasant it is to watch low resolution cable news after becoming used to HD, and says that if the news networks upgraded to high definition, it might impact how we view certain political figures:

One can’t help but think that if these news channels broadcast in higher definition, it would make a big difference to how some of these candidates look and, in turn, how the voters perceive them. John McCain, most notably, is covering up some very old man looking skin under a big ol’ layer of makeup in a way that I bet wouldn’t work nearly as well.

I agree, and I think it would probably give a significant advantage to Barack Obama, and probably John Edwards, as well. The post also indirectly points to something else I’ve noticed about the primaries: They’ve been remarkably policy free. Instead, they’ve been about attitude and image.

Yes, we’ve seen a few squabbles on the Democratic side about the virtues of health-care mandates, and the Republicans have gone after Huckabee as a tax-raiser. But these have turned out to be relatively minor concerns, especially in post-election reporting.

Part of this is that the Democrats largely agree with one another, while the GOP candidates have needed to stay fairly vague in order to not push too hard against Bush or the base while staying viable for the general.

But on the whole, the last leg of the election has focused on personality and personal moments, and press reports have pushed largely identity-based, psychological reasons as explanations for voter behavior. So Hillary won in New Hampshire because she teared up and connected with working-class women. Obama won in Iowa because of his inspiring, powerful personality. Huckabee took Iowa due to his religiosity and his populist preacher vibe. McCain stood out because of his righteous independence, his strong character.

These sorts of explanations get sneered at as “theater criticism” on a pretty regular basis. But the thing is, I’m not sure there’s anything terribly wrong with this sort of coverage dominating the dailies and the networks. Policy positions are no doubt important, but they’re only useful to a certain point. The vast majority of voters simply aren’t going to read white papers on the technical differences between cap and trade or a carbon tax, or delve into the details of various health care plans (I’d love to see statistics on how many people actually downloaded the PDFs of each candidate’s plan). They’re going to remain rationally ignorant. And that’s OK! But it also means that detailed discussion of these subjects is of limited utility.

Many people — maybe even most — I think, really aren’t voting for a set of policy positions. They’re voting for a person, a symbol, someone whose rhetoric and persona appeals to them, someone from whom they’d be amenable to taking direction and proud to have as their representative to the world — someone who they feel understands them, shares a sensibility, or serves as an aspirational figure. This explains how you can get people, even in hyperinformed Iowa or New Hampshire, waffling between Ron Paul and John Edwards, or Obama and McCain. It explains why the Brooksian psychological approach to politics is so popular, and why a candidate tearing up on the campaign trail is, for good or for ill, big news. And it helps to explain the appeal of politics and political news in general, even for those who are rarely affected by its daily ins and outs. Because politics is a story, a sprawling, never-ending serial, part soap opera, part circus, part epic. And it’s ours.

Update: Somehow, I only just now ran across this older but still fantastic Chris Hayes article on undecided voters, which paints a fascinating picture of how undecided voters do (and don’t) make decisions. The only thing I’d add is that I suspect many of their tendencies — some level of stubbornness and irrationality, confusion about what issues really are, etc. — are present in voters who do have preferred candidates as well, further muddling any debates about the usefulness of policy.