Online quiz helps voters choose their candidate

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

Luana Williams may be undecided at this stage in the presidential election cycle, but she already has formulated a few opinions about the candidates. The University of Iowa junior thinks Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has a great personality, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is “very sincere-looking,” and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean reminds her of a “cocky used car salesman.”

Though Williams will keep these impressions of the candidates’ personalities in mind when she determines whom to support, the biochemical engineering major said the candidates’ stances on the issues will be her deciding factor.

Rather than go through the daunting task of skimming through the countless position statements on the nine potential Democratic nominees’ Web sites, Williams has opted for an easier way to determine which candidate’s stances best match her own. She turns to SelectSmart.com’s 2004 American Presidential Candidate Selector.

The online quiz, designed by Curt Anderson of Oregon, asks users 17 policy questions on issues ranging from foreign affairs to health care. After users select the statements they agree with and the priority each issue takes in their decision-making, a results page ranks the candidates by the percentage of questions that match up with the quiz taker’s stances.

SelectSmart’s candidate selector debuted in August of the 2000 presidential race, but the 2004 quiz already has surpassed the hits that were generated in the prior election. Around 190,000 visitors have taken the quiz since its February 2003 launch, Anderson said in mid-December.

Kucinich is most often at the top of users’ results lists (25 percent), followed by Dean (18 percent) and President George W. Bush (16 percent). Democrat Lyndon LaRouche and Green Party candidates are least likely to be at the top of users’ lists (or even on them at all), with zero percent each, while former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) are visitors’ top choices only 1 percent of the time.

Anderson said he thinks visitors are most likely to be “the kind of people who made up their mind and are simply here to confirm their decision, though there are some candidate shoppers, as well.”

Along with all new names on the 2004 quiz, Anderson added a feature that lets users look up how visitors answer the questions based on location, age or gender.

Anderson also changed the questions from those on the previous quiz based on what he thinks are the “hot button issues” for this election. Issues from 2000 such as gay rights and whether creationism should be taught in public schools were replaced with ones on faith-based initiatives and the conflict between national security and civil rights this year.

“It’s possible that the issue of gay marriage and civil unions may become a big issue, but I’m holding off right now,” he said.

Anderson determines which issues are included in the quiz, along with the candidates’ positions, by looking at various polls, news reports and Google news groups online. He updates the questions as key issues in the campaigns change or candidates clarify their positions, recently adding a question about trade policies in response to public demand.

“ I don’t remember any real radical changes [to the quiz]. It’s more along the lines of how ardent [the candidates] were, whether they were more middle-of-the-road or extreme,” he said. “It’s not so much changing but adding to their positions.”

The quiz remains the same length as it was in 2000, though questions 12 through 16 now revolve around the ratings that special interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, give the candidates.

Sally Mills, a Johnson County volunteer for Clark’s campaign, has taken online quizzes similar to SelectSmart’s presidential candidate selector before and approaches them with caution.

“I personally tend to look for a more holistic view, because [candidates] could have wonderful positions, but if they can’t communicate them to the greater public, they’re not going to get the vote,” she said.

For example, Mills said that while many Democrats she has talked to say they identify with Kucinich, they don’t believe in his electability. However, Mills thinks there are some benefits to using online presidential selectors.

“I think they’re useful, especially in a crowded field,” she said. “I wouldn’t take [the results] as graven in stone, but when you have a talented field with such interesting people, it’s useful to be able to sort out the differences between them.”

After taking the SelectSmart’s quiz, Mills was surprised to find the Rev. Al Sharpton at the top of her list with an 89 percent match. Dean and Kucinich tied for second at 88 percent, with her candidate of choice, Clark, coming in at 80 percent.

Mills said that although she would have liked for Clark to come in ahead of Dean, the 8 percent difference was smaller than what she would have expected between Clark and Kucinich, given how different some have claimed their stances to be.

“ I do know that Clark leans a little bit to the right of my ideal fantasy landscape, but that doesn’t bother me in the least,” Mills said. “In fact, it’s that tiny lean away from the standard left stance—just a little right, not too far, like Lieberman—that makes me think Clark’s more electable than the others.”

Mills thought that although the questions on the quiz were fair, they were not complete. She was particularly disappointed with how the abortion, environment, civil rights and minority rights questions were answered by associating one’s views with an advocacy group, noting that it seems to be “a pretty sloppy and generic way to get a match to anyone’s real preferences.”

She also would have liked to see more questions on economics, energy policy and especially on a candidate’s experience, leadership and vision for the future.

Though most of the responses to the selector have been positive, with compliments coming from members of the Dean campaign, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The New York Times, Anderson occasionally hears from disgruntled users who didn’t get the results they expected.

“It’s not because of political reasons; sometimes they just don’t like [their highest ranking candidate] because of the way he looks,” Anderson said. “Like for Kucinich, one person said, ‘I would never vote for a guy who looks like a troll,’ but we can’t factor that in. We just talk about the issues.”

As Williams carefully clicked through the presidential candidate selector, she found the quiz to be more complicated than she originally imagined.

“It got pretty deep. I thought it wasn’t going to require so much thinking, but it does,” she said. “It also makes me want to look into these issues more now, because I’m not familiar with a lot of them, so that may change my answers.”

Regardless, Williams expressed excitement in discovering whether the results would match up to her first inklings. They did.

“I’m very pleasantly surprised that the candidate that suits me is Clark,” she said, matching up with the general’s stances 86 percent of the time. “What’s his first name again?”

Though Williams was unfamiliar with Sharpton, her third place candidate (74 percent), she understood why Dean (75 percent) took second place in her results.

“ I thought actually that his issues are what I agree with, but I just don’t like him. And I’m not surprised with Kucinich. I like him, but I think he’s pretty extreme, so that’s why he’s down more,” she said of the former Cleveland mayor who finished sixth at 62 percent.

Williams said she voted with special consideration to the candidates’ education stances and foreign affairs policies. The war with Iraq was a particularly important issue for Williams, who said she wanted to “wait it out more and have the cooperation of other nations and negotiate, rather than taking action.”

Though she said the selector helped her figure out which direction she’s leaning, Williams still intends to do more research on the candidates.

“ It was a lot of fun, actually,” she said of the quiz. “I want to find out if my answer changes as I learn more about the candidates.”

E-mai Shelbi Thomas at shelbi-thomas@uiowa.edu

This story was published in the Burlington (IA) Hawk Eye on December 21, 2003.

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