Elect-Your-Match: Computer-Dating Hits the Presidential Election!

Co-authored by Danieli Evans

Millions of Americans use on-line dating sites to search for their perfect mate: Are you a hiker or a homebody? A sports fanatic or a poetry fiend?

After telling the dating service who you're looking for and what you're like, its computer matching program searches its data base -- and presto, out comes a list of prospects whose responses best match yours.

Let voters do the same thing as they search for the right presidential candidate. Here's how Elect-Your-Match! works. Obama and Romney each pick their five priority issues and write up policy statements on each choice. There is only one proviso: neither can mention his name or political party or that of his opponent.

This means that voters clicking onto Elect-Your-Match! confront the issue-statements behind a "veil of ignorance." They don't know who is supporting what. They then check a box to indicate whether they strongly/moderately/slightly agree or disagree with each of the ten policy-statements -- or whether they are neutral on the issue. With the last check-off, a drum-roll announces the voter's "best match" candidate, and how he compares with his rival.

Everything depends on the integrity of the "matching algorithm." Ours is straightforward: If a citizen "strongly" supports a candidate on a particular issue, we award seven points. We then subtract one-point for each step that the voter distances himself in issue space -- with "moderately support" earning six points and "strongly oppose," only one. So the voter's final tally for Obama and Romney will range from 7 to 35 points.

We also help voters fine-tune their judgment. If they think that one or two issues are a lot more, or a lot less, important than the rest, Elect-Your-Match! will make it easy to weight these issues accordingly and allow voters to see whether their presidential choice changes. If they want to learn more, they can access a series of more elaborate back-up statements, and play the dating game again.

Most people will call it quits quite quickly. Nevertheless, a few minutes of engagement will reap big rewards. Candidates increasingly fine-tune their campaigns to target very different sound-bites to ever-narrower audiences. Elect-Your-Match! pushes in the opposite direction -- forcing them to frame the same message on a few central issues.

Both campaigns will certainly try to game the system, focus-grouping alternative formulations to win the highest scores from swing groups. But they will operate under important constraints. Candidates can't be too vapid without alienating their base. They can't settle for misleading sound-bites without generating blistering media criticism. They can't drone on for pages without inducing mass boredom and a wave of hostile ratings. They have an incentive to highlight salient positions in a pointed paragraph or two.

This will vastly clarify voters' understanding of the stakes involved. Americans are notoriously poor at matching positions to candidates. In 2008, a Pew study found that 38% of American voters couldn't say whether Obama or McCain were pro-life or pro-choice, and those with opinions were often mistaken: 45% said McCain was pro-life, but 17% incorrectly identified him as pro-choice. This suggests that a third of the "correct" answers were only guesses.

A few minutes on Elect-Your-Match! will generate lots of second-thoughts and reappraisals. It will also provoke a host of conversations on Facebook and real-life, as friends compare reactions to their sometimes-surprising discoveries. The escalating talk will generate a virtuous cycle -- with more and more people linking into Elect-Your-Match!, sometimes returning to dig deeper.

It would cost less than $200,000 to set up the system, and less than $100,000 to maintain it. If Obama and Romney gave the go-ahead, Elect-Your-Match! could become operational well before the Fall.

Both campaigns may prove responsive. With their super PACs bombarding each other with negative ads, Obama and Romney have a powerful incentive to take the high road in the campaigns for which they take personal responsibility. Elect-Your-Match! provides them with this opportunity. Are they willing to give it a try?

How Elect-Your-Match! Is Different

There are at least three sites on the Web that currently provide voters with information on candidate positions: http://www.votesmart.org/voteeasy/, http://electnext.com/ and http://www.isidewith.com/. We urge you to give them a look, beginning with the first on the list, which is sponsored by the Carter Center.

Elect-Your-Match! differs from all three sites in three key respects: First, the candidates themselves prepare their issue statements, eliminating the danger of biased presentation by third-parties. Second, Elect-Your-Match! guides the visitor through a standardized questionnaire, focusing their attention on the key issues selected by the candidates themselves. In contrast, existing sites invite visitors to roam amidst a host of policy areas. Third, Elect-Your-Match! allows a voter to identify the candidate whose overall views are closest, while existing sites only enable voters to compare their views with candidates on an issue-by-issue basis. This not only makes Elect-Your-Match! a lot more fun, it also prepares voters better for the decision they will be making on Election Day.

Bruce Ackerman is a professor at law and political science at Yale and the author, with James Fishkin, of Deliberation Day.

Danieli Evans is a third-year student at Yale Law School.