Pensive Penn
In an op-ed piece posted last night on Politico, former Clinton strategist Mark Penn argues that Democratic nominees typically lose presidential elections when they try to outdo their Republican counterparts on personal qualities like individual toughness and strength of leadership. Penn instead suggests that Democrats should focus on drawing sharp policy distinctions which highlight that the party is right on the issues, while Republicans are wrong. He concludes it is a misplaced emphasis on candidate characteristics rather than superior issue positions that is standing in the way of a Democratic landslide in November.
Two points strike me immediately about Penn’s op-ed. First, he seems to be implying that differences in issue positions between the two parties in this election cycle have been blurred or insufficiently highlighted to provide Barack Obama with the built-in electoral advantage current voter preferences should give him. But it actually seems to me that even with some recent candidate convergence on Iraq and Afghanistan, the two campaigns continue to present differences in issue positions in the starkest of terms on a daily basis, especially on the economy and health care (also mentioned by Penn). I am not sure how simply arguing more forcefully that your side is right and the other is wrong would provide some new decisive advantage to the Obama campaign.
Second, Penn doesn’t provide evidence that voters are any more likely to vote on issues over personality this time than they have in previous presidential elections. I wrote a series of posts (click through the links here) on this very issue late last year, and I have seen nothing new to change my thinking. Just because voter preferences are more closely aligned with Democratic positions this time around, doesn’t mean that voter calculus will be any different than it has been in the past, when it comes to making that final, gut-level decision about which candidate is the stronger leader, and thus more presidential in stature.

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