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Election assumptions and expectations

By Jim Camp
web posted September 8, 2008

We are all the sum of our experiences and much of the process by which we make judgments about others is the result of learning something about their lives and experiences. This is particularly true of the political campaigns for the presidency of the United States.

We want to "know" the candidate before we vote for him. The campaign makes significant efforts to provide a believable biography of their candidate. Part of my biography was my service in Vietnam.  The same war saw Sen. John McCain's physical strength, mental toughness and character tested through five years of imprisonment. By contrast, Sen. Obama has not had the opportunity to serve in war, but there are other means by which to judge his courage and foresight

As I point out in my book, No. The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work or Home, we got into the Vietnam War and remained engaged in it on the basis of incorrect assumptions.  "In Vietnam, successive administrations were absolutely certain they knew what the North Vietnamese were thinking and how they would react to bombing halts, bombing resumptions, peace feelers, and all of our other futile attempts to obtain ‘peace with honor.' Absolutely certain and absolutely wrong." 

Each voter has to approach the coming election as if it were a blank slate. There looms for each of us the potential of being absolutely certain and absolutely wrong. As a negotiations coach, I teach students and clients to forget their positive and negative expectations. I tell them to stay with their mission and purpose, and, most important of all, their principles.

By late July, following his whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe, Sen. Barack Obama returned to discover that, according to Rasmussen Reports, an astonishing 63% of potential voters did not believe the trip had made him any more qualified to be President.

Given the instability of the Middle East and our dependency in part on its oil, an Iraq that can demonstrate stability and movement toward a democratic form of governance looms large in how people will case their vote. I believe that most Americans have concluded that leaving before achieving that mission would be a big mistake. We need, therefore, to know what assumptions both of the candidates have made regarding the outcome of the conflict in Iraq.

Remember, though, assumptions as regards politicians or in any negotiation can be seriously wrong. Lost in the midst of the campaign is the fact that, however wrong President George W. Bush's assumptions may have been to invade Iraq, after replacing Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and heeding the advice of his generals, the war has moved steadily toward an improved status involving a seriously reduction in conflict and a growing political coalition in Iraq between competing sects and national parties. 

Ultimately, the projection of American power in that vital region of the world appears to be yielding good results. Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in the 1990s, is gone. Al-Qaida has been seriously degraded. The ultimate mission is showing signs of real success. At some point in the campaign, voters need to know what assumptions both candidates have made regarding the unfinished job in Afghanistan. 

The candidates the voters come to "know" are primarily the campaign biographies presented to them via their websites, television commercials, and their speeches. Again, relying on my years of training people to negotiate successfully, permit me to point out that, just as dangerous as assumptions can be, so too are expectations and political campaigns are all about expectations.

Most people believe they are pretty good at "reading" other people, at understanding what they are really feeling and thinking. This is often a serious error when negotiating. In terms of the current campaigns and the times in which they are being conducted, rapid national and international changes must be factored into a voter's decision. One example is the recent invasion of Georgia by the Russian Federation. That is now a factor in determining which candidate responded best to it,

Sen. Obama's primary political theme is "change." I challenge you, however, to ask yourself if anyone could have anticipated the change that occurred on September 11, 2001? Could anyone have anticipated the mortgage loan bubble that has burst in the last year? Could anyone have anticipated $4.00-a-gallon gasoline? No one expected 9/11 despite warnings such an attack could occur. It defied the imagination. No one would have predicted the current status of our nation's economy, but we expect presidents to respond effectively when such events occur.

My advice is to not assume anything about Sen. Obama or Sen. John McCain. Do not assume you know what they are thinking and do not let your expectations interfere with your decision as regards the very real questions of Sen. McCain's or Sen. Obama's experience, character, and judgment.

Instead do what any good negotiator would do. Learn as much as you can about Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. There are ample sources of credible information beyond the daily babble of media pundits.

Every election is about assumptions and expectations. Make sure that yours are based on facts, not emotion. Read their books and their voting history.  Ask questions of the commentary you listen to or read. Work at being informed. ESR

Jim Camp is an international recognized expert on negotiation and the author of two bestselling books on the subject. His website is www.startwithno.com. © Jim Camp, September 2008

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