Thursday, February 23, 2012

USA Today’s Somewhat Flawed Candidate Match Game

A few days ago, my mother forwarded me a link to USA Today’s Candidate Match Game. I played the game and to no great surprise, the candidate who best matched my answers to the issues was President Obama (with Jon Huntsman running a distant second). Go ahead. Click over and play the game. I’ll wait…

Done? Cool. Which candidate best matched your thoughts on the issues? Were you surprised?

So now let’s take a closer look at the “game” itself. First, let’s look at the 11 issues presented in the game:

  • Afghanistan
  • Energy
  • Health Care
  • Medicare
  • Immigration
  • Experience
  • Social Security
  • Climate Change
  • Taxes
  • Defense Spending
  • Gay Marriage

That’s certainly a decent set of issues. But do you notice any important issues missing from that list? What about job creation? That seems like a fairly important issue these days, don’t you think? What about states rights (i.e., the ability of states to opt out of federal laws or to claim that many federal laws are an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of the states). That’s something that the Republicans have been talking about quite a bit (often in terms of the 10th Amendment). What about the rights of women and other minorities (whether it be things like equal pay, access to birth control, or affirmative action)? What about Iran and whether we should continue to try to negotiate or simply begin the attack? Abortion, anyone? Financial oversight (i.e., “too big to fail” and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)? And what about efforts to cut government spending and reduce the debt (other than just with cuts to the military)? The Republicans talk a lot about cutting this department, that agency, or bunches of programs (like, for example, the EPA or the Department of Education). It seems to me that those are also important issues that would help people determine which candidate best matches their thoughts.

I raise these issues because it seems to me that the selection of issues included in USA Today’s game seems to skew somewhat toward the issues that Republicans are talking about. If the point of the game were just to determine which Republican most closely meets your ideas, then that’s fine. But the game also includes President Obama as a possible outcome. Think for a moment of your own answers and results. Now pretend that the game had included questions on methods to spur job creation, whether states can opt out of federal laws and mandates, minority rights, abortion, and methods to reduce the debt and cut spending (among other possible categories). We haven’t heard President Obama talk much about the 10th Amendment but we have heard him talk about job creation. Thinking broadly about how you might answer those questions, do you think you would have skewed further toward President Obama or toward one of the Republican candidates?

And let’s dig a bit deeper on a few of the questions that were asked. For example, the question on health care offers four choices (plus “none of the above”); three choices involve repealing the new health care law while the fourth choice is to simply “support” the health care law. The problem here is that many on the left of the spectrum feel that the Affordable Care Act didn’t go far enough. Many were upset that the law didn’t include a “government option” or single payer system. And many were upset that the law didn’t really address the cost of health care, including such problems as re-importation of drugs. Some who may generally support the Affordable Care Act may not click on the “support” answer because they want it to be enhanced and aren’t satisfied with how it stands at present. So the omission of that sort of answer choice may skew respondents away from President Obama.

Or take the question on immigration. Three of the four substantive answers include tighter border security (and the fourth implies it); but none of the options suggest making immigration easier or more fair. One of the answers talks about extending some privileges to illegal immigrants who have ties in the community, but none of the options makes mention of actually granting some form of amnesty or establishing a guest worker program. Thus, again, it appears that the choices seem to skew toward the Republicans … or at least what the Republicans are talking about.

The answers to the question on Social Security are really oddly worded. For example, the first two answers appear to only differ in whether or not the retirement age is raised, but the second answer adds in a suggestion of means testing. Both means testing and retirement age are important things to consider, but it seems that to really approach those issues, you’d need a matrix of four, not two, possible answers. This problem is exacerbated by the next answer which again talks about raising the retirement age and links that to private accounts with no mention of means testing.

Or consider the wording on the cap-and-trade answer to the climate change question: “Reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade system that would force industries to pay for exceeding limits.” The problem with that answer is that it is one of those leading answers that suggests a response to the casual reader not well-versed in the issues; after all, who wants to make industries pay more? The answer doesn’t provide the context (the whole cap-and-trade concept) that allows industries that have reduced their pollution to trade their pollution credits to industries that are still polluting and provides a time frame for the reduction of pollution. Note further that the answers don’t really provide any real response other than “no” for those who disagree with cap-and-trade … because none of the Republican candidates have really put forth any proposals.

The answers to the question on taxation are also somewhat odd. Most notable is the omission of any reference to the Buffett Rule. Similarly, there is reference to allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire … but no mention of raising taxes on the wealthiest.

Finally, with regard to gay marriage, it seems that there should be an option for those who actually support gay marriage.

Yes, I understand that those who crafted the game tried to limit answers to things that the various candidates have proposed. However, as written, that winds up giving lots of choices within the field of Republican candidates but only a single “correct” answer on the “left”.

Thus, when you combine the issues being addressed with the types of answers offered for those issues, I can’t help but feel that the entire game skews to the right, even if not toward any particular candidate. And I do think that the omission of questions relevant to the economy, in particular (other than a single question on taxes) may tend to have more people “choosing” a Republican than otherwise would if there were more questions on these core issues. With just one more question, focusing on job creation, for example, how many people’s chosen candidate would have switched from a Republican to President Obama (or the other way, I suppose)? Given that most polling shows that the economy and job creation is at the top of almost all lists of issues important to voters, the omission of that topic is highly problematic.

And, given the recent flap over birth control and abortion (among other social issues), that gay marriage is the only social issue included is also problematic. I can see many people disagreeing with gay marriage but also disagreeing with the anti-abortion or anti-contraception stance of many of the Republicans. So the choice of one particular social issue doesn’t lead to a very useful understanding of the host of social issues that may influence a person’s vote or help someone determine which candidate best matches their views, especially if that particular voter rates social issues high on their scale of importance.

Nevertheless, the “game” does provide a useful, if limited, opportunity for people to compare their thoughts on some issues to those espoused by the candidates. As the general election draws nearer, I’d love to seem a much more detailed version of this game with far more questions and much more detailed answers and choices. Now that would be a game worth playing.

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