What Voters Want
While some prefer an experienced politician as the U.S. president, others want an “outsider” with new ideas and approach.
According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, in spring 2015, a majority of Democratic and Republican voters wanted a U.S. president with a proven record and relevant political experience, and someone who could accomplish their mandate. However, by fall 2015 and continuing into early 2016, the numbers had flipped and more voters expressed a preference for a president with new ideas and approach, someone who could be viewed as an outsider in Washington, D.C., politics. The shift came entirely among Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Opinions among Democratic voters remained more stable.
For Republican Party supporters, this outsider quality is reflected in Donald Trump and probably accounts for his political rise that most experts deemed unlikely at the beginning of his campaign. Trump’s lack of political experience comes as a bonus for some voters who see him as an “outsider” to the usual fare of Washington, D.C., politics.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders also had a wave of success by being perceived as a Washington, D.C., outsider. “Feel the Bern” rallies were full of people, many of them young, who expressed dissatisfaction with the political process and enthusiasm over Sanders’ ideas, particularly with regard to poverty, income inequality, healthcare and the cost of higher education in the United States. But enthusiasm for Sanders was ultimately not enough, as voters chose Hillary Clinton—a Washington, D.C., insider in many ways—as their nominee. This seems to indicate many Democratic voters’ desire stability and experience—qualities they see embodied in Clinton.
Individual voters have voiced similar concerns, which reflect the larger trends of the U.S. electorate. Jackie Heinsohn, a jewelry designer in New York City, wanted to understand the enthusiasm the Sanders campaign was generating. But after attending one of his a rallies in the Bronx, she was unmoved. Instead, Heinsohn feels Clinton’s proven record indicates she is the right person for the job. “I have been a Clinton supporter right from the start. Nevertheless, I was interested to get to know more about Bernie Sanders...and wanted to witness his first speech in [New York City]. Though the crowd was large, the energy was far below from what I expected.” Heinsohn, by way of contrast, reminisced about Obama’s “Yes, we can” campaign, which was larger than life, and offered hope and inspiration along with the message for change. “As a woman, I am happy to support Hillary,” says Heinsohn. “To have a woman president would be historic.”
Many voters see the act of voting as more than just choosing one person or another, deeming it to be akin to a statement on the value of voting itself. As Eric Rosenbaum, a financial writer and editor at CNBC, sees it, the usefulness of a vote is the power it has to chip away at an otherwise static political core. “For me, it’s simple. Anyone who espouses a view that, in any way, shape or form, would move the immovable glacier of U.S. politics even an inch will get my vote. I believe it’s my goal as a voter to try and do everything I can to move that glacier—the establishment/status quo—in any way possible,” he says.
In this way, an individual vote is for a larger principle and not so much for a particular candidate.
Emma Stanton, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, agrees. As much as one may be swayed by individual candidates, ultimately, the act of voting is about asserting one’s claims on the underlying values a particular vote may imply. “I am incredibly wary of considering any candidate whose ‘likability’ or ‘relatability’ is portrayed as one of his or her contributing assets for being a qualified presidential candidate. Rather, what I focus on primarily is the candidate’s positions—on women’s reproductive rights, immigration laws, etc. Beyond these issues, I think about the candidate’s understanding of foreign policy—how complex it is—and how much actual experience the candidate has with foreign policy,” says Stanton.
The current election cycle has been a complex one and there is no indication that it will change as the Election Day gets closer. What voters want, however, is fairly clear. Which candidate will get his or her message across and convince those who ascribe to it to come out to vote, remains the challenge at the center of U.S. politics.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.