Pundits, pollsters, and election watchers say Hillary Clinton may have won the New Hampshire primary because she cried. Or perhaps because women caught Barack Obama condescending to her during the last Democratic presidential debate before voters took to the polls.
On the Republican side, John McCain may have benefited from independent voters who migrated to the GOP side of the ballot after already determining in their heads that Obama had the Democratic nomination locked up.
Over the coming moths, expect to hear much discussion about Obama's race, Clinton's gender, and Mitt Romney's religion. We've already heard discussion about how Fred Thompson's attractive wife and acting career might factor into the campaign. You might also remember back to 2000, when the presidential election seemed to turn when TV cameras caught Al Gore rolling his eyes and making exaggerated sighs during one of the debates.
In 2004, John Kerry lost credibility with voters after being photographed while windsurfing, which confirmed heartland America's vision of him as an elitist New England snob.
There's little if anything substantive about these campaign-changing moments. Pundits drone on and on about what issues voters will think are most important but presidential campaigns have almost always turned on gaffes, personality quirks, or some other completely unpredictable campaign event that has little to do with policy.
Think back to the photo of Michael Dukakis looking ridiculous with his beauty-shop-coiffed head popping out of a tank. Or Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no John Kennedy" line to Dan Quayle in 1992.
It's a safe bet that 2008 won't be much different. This election will likely be decided not on the wisdom of the war in Iraq, the economy, or the merits of one candidate's immigration plan over another. It will come down to something far less important. This is how we choose leaders in America. It's pretty unsettling, particularly when you consider that the winner gets to oversee a $3 trillion federal budget, commands 2.6 million federal workers, can send 1.4 million active troops off to war (as well as another 1.4 million reserve troops), and takes the reins of the most powerful office in the history of man—and it's only growing more powerful.
I don't know how you change the election laws to make things any different. The great paradox of politics is that the set of skills and talents it takes to win a campaign are decidedly different than the set of skills and talents it takes to govern.
Perhaps the better solution is to tackle the other end of the problem: We need to make it so there's less at stake—so it matters less who wins the presidency, which party controls the Congress, or who's sleeping in the governor's mansion.
There are two "societies" working side by side in America: a "civil" society, and a "political" society. Civil society consists of all the voluntary transactions and interactions we undertake on a daily basis. Going to the grocery store or to church, buying stock, seeing a movie—these are all things we do of our own volition. The people we're interacting with are also taking part voluntarily. Civil society is what makes free markets work. It's the collective of the billions of voluntary interactions we make every day. Both parties emerge better for having interacted.
Political society is what goes on in Washington, D.C. and, to a lesser extent, in state capital buildings and city council offices across the country. Most of it is involuntary. Decisions are made not based on mutual agreement, but on who has more power and clout. Political society decides how your taxes are divvied up. It is interest groups squabbling over who gets the bigger subsidy check. It is corporations fighting to get regulations written in a way that will hurt their competitors.
In civil society, underperforming companies go out of business; in political society, government agencies that don't fulfill their missions get bigger budgets, and more employees. In civil society, underperforming employees lose their jobs; in political society, it's nearly impossible to fire a federal employee, no matter how poorly they perform. In civil society, competition flourishes, markets constantly write and rewrite the rules, new ideas are tested, and innovators are rewarded; in political society, politicians write the rules, the same names get elected and re-elected, power becomes entrenched, and new ideas are dismissed as fringe and dangerous.
Our goal ought to be to keep as much of America as possible within the realm of civil society, and allow as little as possible to be tainted by political society. This makes elections less important. It makes politics less important. Less is at stake when we go to the polls. And less of our lives are then subject to whoever is ambitious, underhanded, or corrupt enough to emerge from the absurdities of a political campaign least scathed by the process.
The benefits of civil versus political society are clear: If there are no public schools, there's no debate over whether we should teach creationism or evolution. If government isn't in the business of sanctioning marriages, there's no debate over whether it should sanction gay ones.
Here's a more recent example: Over the last few months, civil libertarians have lashed out at telecommunications companies for cooperating with the Bush administration's efforts to eavesdrop on phone calls. The problem is that the telecos' biggest customer is the federal government. Those 2.6 million federal workers all need phones.
A company normally would never risk the backlash that would come with a plan to spy on its customers. But when your biggest customer is the one asking you to do the spying, your priorities change. Government distorts proper market incentives.
Unfortunately, things are only getting worse. Federal spending now accounts for about 20 percent of our economy. Government plays a role in just about everything we do. Higher education and health care, for example, have been growing less civil and more political for years. Health care in particular is likely to become wholly and completely political in the next decade. Meaning one of the most important part of your life--your very health--may soon be subject to who's done a better job manipulating the process come Election Day.
The worse news is that we may have passed the point of no return. There's now so much at stake in our elections for so many different interests, any candidate who runs on a platform of expanding civil society and shrinking political society isn't likely to find much support. In other words, we may have reached the point where there's too much at stake for most of America to have any interest in lowering the stakes.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.