Detailed Campaigns

One of the complaints about the Republican Convention that will surely be repeated when the Democrats gather in Charlotte is that newly uttered proposals sound great but lack sufficient detail to be evaluated seriously. Who is going to do precisely what to Medicare? How much of what government services are going to be cut?

It may be useful to look at a comparative example to ponder how more information could change the nature of campaigns. In the Netherlands each party provides excruciatingly detailed party platforms. No-one expects that voters will weed through all of this. The information needs to be translated into something more directly useful to voters. There has been a proliferation of on-line programs (and apps) similar to Project VoteSmart that help voters make choices based on  answers to a set of policy propositions.There are at least four popular general ones (here is one in English) and there are also more targeted programs for the elderly, kids, cannabis lovers, stupid people, and one where you can apply the Lee Sigelman theory of politics by choosing exclusively based on looks.  Some of these programs  predate the American counterparts and are extremely popular.

Perhaps even more influential is an institution called the Central Planning Agency, which runs each party’s submissions through a model and offers projections. Many of the publicly televised debates in the Netherlands centered on claims like this: “if my party wins, unemployment will be two percent lower than yours.” “Well that’s true in 2014 but not in 2017. In any case, under our program the budget deficit will be 1,5% lower than yours.”

On the one hand, all this information is great and potentially makes the campaign more substantive than it otherwise would be. Yet, it also enhances the role of models or modelers. There is a good amount of data to play with. Models are needed to translate these data into conclusions that can be consumed by the public. Research into the various vote choosing software shows that the same voters are often advised to vote for different parties. The problem is more serious for the Central Planning Agency, which is seen as authoritative in the Netherlands. Even though the institution warns that uncertainty should be taken into account and that the model’s history at accurately forecasting the impact of policies isn’t terribly great, in many of the political debates the Agency’s projections are taken as gospel.

I am not saying that it is bad to have so much detail going into campaigns. But it does magnify the role of modelers that translate detail into palatable information. I suspect it may work out a bit differently in the U.S. Somehow methinks Americans aren’t going to go en masse for a Central Planning Agency. The Congressional Budget Office does some of this work but probably couldn’t play this role in an election. Partisan institutions could each run their own models, rigged to favor their party’s platform (and thus negating added information that comes with detail). Thoughts?


3 Responses to Detailed Campaigns

  1. Chaz September 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    In the U.S. (and in Netherlands) I doubt such an institution would end up spewing straight partisan lies. It would probably use a very conservative (as in cautious), orthodox model. It would favor parties proposing very conventional neoliberal policies and would probably be very unfair to someone proposing helicopter drops, socialism, etc. Probably unfair even just to stimulus. Even so I would welcome it because the current mode of debate isn’t just a bit unfair to plans to reduce unemployment, it gives no credit at all. Each candidate just says they’ll create jobs and that’s all that’s expected of them.

    So just for the ability to quantify employment changes and help people talk about it, even if the estimates are way off, this sounds great.

  2. Matt September 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I understand that adding more detail to campaigns could potentially be a double edged sword but I’d still prefer at least a little detail. All I’ve been hearing from the republicans is “Obama was awful and I will be better” and there isn’t much substance coming from the left either. I really want to know how Romney will be better. anybody can promise anything but at least with some more detail you could tell if either candidate actually has a plan beyond bashing the other guy or blind promises of creating jobs.

  3. Brian September 7, 2012 at 1:56 am #

    I would pose a slightly different answer. Instead of a central agency that provides a “non-partisan” calculation, why don’t we simply require more detailed policy planks be submitted to a public clearinghouse whose role is only to collect, publicize, and provide hard data. In this scenario, everyone from major media outlets to hobbyists would have the starting point by which to determine policy outcomes. In my estimation, this would provide a democratic approach in which the best models would likely rise to significance based on the merits of the models and the modelers and provide a more differentiated view of partisan policy proposals.