A guess about the presidential debate tonight: Barring a gaffe, in which one candidate says what they actually believe, neither Romney nor Obama will say anything of true substance; they will not go beyond platitudes about their platforms and generalizations about their plans. Clearly, the debates have a lot of potential to shift the tenor of the race, but that is mostly cosmetic. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson says that the election represents a choice between Coke and Pepsi—two essentially identical choices. And polling data supports him: voters don’t think either candidate offers any sort of meaningful change to their lives.
That’s the finding from a survey completed by Havas Media (home of Co.Exist contributor Umair Haque) after the last debate; they’ll do another round after tonight. Respondents answered questions about the candidates’ ability to help society as a whole and them as an individual. The results don’t speak well to how either candidate is connecting with voters, and show how little faith voters have in politicians’ abilities to improve society.
The survey asked respondents to decide on questions of empathy, like whether or not one thinks each candidate "listens to and cares about citizens" (Obama over Romney, 45% to 20%) or "supports the development of local businesses" (Romney over Obama, 32% to 29%). These results are not surprising: Throughout the campaign, Romney has lagged behind in traditional polls of how he relates to the problems of regular people.
What’s more interesting is when the poll asks respondents how they think the candidates might be able to improve specific areas of their lives. On questions about whether the candidates will "help make my life easier," "help me live a better or fuller life," or "help me be a more responsible citizen" both candidates’ numbers are atrocious—with no more than 32% of respondents agreeing with any question about either candidate. Obama tops out at 31% on the question of "will treat me with respect." Romney hits his maximum (19.6%) on helping people "feel safe from harm" (Obama beats him here, with 26%; on no question in this section does Romney outpace Obama). While Obama might win out, it’s with anemic numbers. Even his supporters aren’t too confident he can do much to improve their lives. We’ve selected candidates, it seems, who don’t thrill us.
What’s the lesson here? Havas connects these numbers to its Meaningful Brand Index, a look at which companies people feel are making their lives better. They argue that this is the key business innovation of the future. Any brand can sell you something, only a few can make you feel that interacting with them improves your quality of life. Ideally, we’d want the same in the person running the country—someone who both helps and inspires us to be better citizens. But it seems like we have a long way to go before we find that person. Or perhaps, even more cynically, it may be that our political process simply can’t give us the candidates we actually need.