Pick a peck o' presidents

Not sure who to vote for? Tell your views to a presidential polling site and it will pick out just the right candidate.

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

In 1996, I was hired to cover the U.S. presidential race for a small, family-oriented Web site. It was the first election in which the Internet played any real role. And as I trolled the politics sites, I came upon what quickly became my favorite Web application: the online quiz. Unlike the old televised 1-800 poll, which required you to call, then wait a day or more to learn the outcome, the online poll was instantaneous: vote and see how you compared to others. Point. Click. Results.

The technology that runs these quizzes has not evolved much since then, but our understanding of how to make the best use of it has. Now, instead of a quiz asking whether you'd vote for Oprah or Warren, there's one that tells you who you should be voting for and why.

SelectSmart's American Presidential Candidate Selector lists 17 multiple-choice questions that gauge your opinion on key issues. It then compares your answers to the campaign promises of 18 presidential hopefuls and tells you who to vote for -- or at least whose platform comes closest to your views.

The beauty of this quiz is that it distills the election decision down to the most-debated issues of the day: abortion, gun control, affirmative action, free trade, taxes, welfare, education, big government vs. small, drug policy, candidates' drug history and so on. Gone are flag-waving pageantry, mudslinging commercials and pointless debates!

Of course, the multiple-choice format is a bit simplistic. "Some candidates have outlined their approach to minimizing crime," the quiz reads, defining the presidential hopefuls' possible views as the "'Get tough' approach e.g: longer prison sentences" or the "Preventive approach e.g: job skills for prisoners." You're supposed to choose the approach you prefer, but of course, if you're looking for a candidate who has some other approach, you're out of luck.

One of the best lines in the quiz comes under the evolution vs. creationism topic. "Some presidential candidates favor the teaching of creationism in public schools along with the theory of evolution which is currently taught in science classes. What's your opinion?" the site asks. It then tells some visitors how to vote: "Libertarians should select neutral."

You probably wouldn't want to reduce your voting decision down to a few multiple choice questions. Personality, management style and background are important factors that will affect a future president's performance, and such nuanced information can't be gleaned from any quiz. But the American Presidential Candidate Selector can be useful: Before taking the test, I hadn't even heard of the socialist candidate the site says most closely matches my views. And while I'm not quite ready to cast my ballot, just knowing he exists will give me that much more information to bring to my decision.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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