George W. Bush had a problem. As he prepared to sweep to his party’s presidential nomination with the endorsements of several GOP governors, and to run a moderate general election campaign against Al Gore, he didn’t need to worry about social conservatives, thanks to a solid record on their issues and a great story to tell about his personal path to religion. But his strongest opponent in the early going was publisher Steve Forbes, running on a flat tax platform. Bush had no particular record of exceptional orthodoxy on taxes, and of course that was an area in which being his father’s son was highly problematic, and therefore might have been vulnerable to attacks by Forbes.

The solution was obvious, and for the U.S. budget, fateful: Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut, thereby destroying the rationale for the Forbes campaign and leaving the Texas governor a clear path to the nomination. And, as everyone knows, that tax cut also became part of Bush’s general election campaign platform, and was eventually enacted into law in the massive 2001 and 2003 tax cuts—tax cuts that have set the terms of budget politics for the last decade.

The lesson: we can be governed now by measures that were adopted years ago, in some cases decades ago, based on what some candidate said in reaction to the particular dynamics of some now-obscure nomination battle.

Or, to be more blunt: presidents usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign. So if you want to know what Mitt Romney or the rest of the Republican crowd would do in 2013 if elected, the best way to find out is to listen to what they are saying right now.

I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail. The presumption is that politicians are liars who say what voters want to hear to get elected and then behave very differently once in office. The press is especially prone to discount the more extreme positions candidates take in primaries on the expectation that they will “move to the center” in the general election. Certainly everyone can recall specific examples of broken promises, from Barack Obama not closing Gitmo to George W. Bush and “nation building” to, well, you may remember this from the Republican National Convention in 1988:

And I’m the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent, my opponent now says, my opponent now says, he’ll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that’s one resort he’ll be checking into. My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found is that out-and-out high-profile broken pledges like George H. W. Bush’s are the exception, not the rule. That’s what two book-length studies from the 1980s found. Michael Krukones in Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984) established that about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel looked at campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. What he found was that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping. Similarly, Gerald Pomper studied party platforms, and discovered that the promises parties made were consistent with their postelection agendas. More recent and smaller-scale papers have confirmed the main point: presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

Richard Fenno’s studies of how members of Congress think about representation are relevant here, even though his research is based on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Fenno, in a series of books beginning with Home Style in 1978, has followed members as they work their districts, and has transcribed what the world looks like through politicians’ eyes. What he has found is that representatives and senators see every election as a cycle that begins in the campaign, when they make promises to their constituents. Then, if they win, they interpret how those promises will constrain them once they’re in office. Once in Washington, Fenno’s politicians act with two things in mind: how their actions match the promises they’ve made in the previous campaign; and how they will be able to explain those actions when they return to their district. Representation “works,” then, because politicians are constantly aware that what they do in Washington will have to be explained to their constituents, and that it will have to be explained in terms of their original promises.

Of course, there’s more to it than that; at the presidential level, one of the key ways that campaigns constrain presidents is that the same people who draft the candidate’s proposals usually wind up working on those same issue areas in the White House or the relevant departments and agencies, and they tend to be highly committed to the ideas they authored. And don’t sell short the possibility that candidates themselves are personally committed to the programs they advocate—either because those issues sparked their interest in politics to begin with (and that’s why they were advocating them on the campaign trail), or because it’s just a natural human inclination to start believing your own rhetoric.

So why are most Americans (and many members of the working press) so skeptical of campaign promises? One reason is that we tend to care a lot when promises are broken, and so those examples get a lot more attention than do the ones that are redeemed, which often can seem by the time they are finally acted on as foregone conclusions, not news. That’s especially true for the president’s strongest supporters, who are the most likely to be upset about a broken presidential promise, and “Democrats upset with Obama” or “Republicans upset with Bush” is more unexpected and therefore more newsy than when the other party attacks the president. Another reason is that the Madisonian system of checks and balances, especially in eras of frequent divided government, often yields situations in which a president may try hard to achieve a goal he campaigned for, only to be stymied by Congress. (And not just Congress: the bureaucracy doesn’t automatically implement even those initiatives that can be accomplished without legislation.) But given the media’s intense focus on the president at the expense of the rest of the system, activists often blame the president for falling short, rather than holding Congress or others responsible for blocking presidential initiatives. The result is that people systematically underestimate the importance of positions taken on the presidential campaign trail.

For illustrations of this, it’s useful to look back on the last few elections, including at least one—the close 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore—in which many pundits and voters (not to mention Ralph Nader) believed that it didn’t matter what happened. As it turned out, of course, some of the things that Bush did that Gore might not have done were only dimly predictable from the campaign. But in fact the 2000 campaign was a good guide to many of Bush’s initiatives as president, from No Child Left Behind to his faith-based initiative to, most notably, his tax and budget preferences.

A look back at the Republican debates leading into the primaries makes that very clear. Republicans held a debate in Iowa in December 1999, just before the caucuses (this was the debate in which Bush was asked about his favorite philosopher, and he answered, “Christ”). Other than pandering to social conservatives, what did Bush promise to do if he was elected? If we look at public policy issues mentioned in the debate, Bush supported the following: ethanol; trade agreements as a key way of boosting the economy, including easier trade with China; missile defense, and withdrawing from the ABM treaty; more military spending; and the status quo (but tougher) on drugs. These are all ideas he went on to support as president. His proposed tax cuts were mentioned in that debate a few times, as well.

Particularly interesting, I think, was Bush’s rhetoric on missile defense: “No, our country must not retreat. We must not worry about what the Russians and Chinese think. What we need to do is lead the world to peace. And that’s exactly the kind of president I intend to be.” And it was exactly the kind of president he turned out to be, with regard to foreign policy—never worrying about what other nations thought, considering any type of accommodation or compromise an unacceptable “retreat,” and imagining the most bellicose actions, including, in this case, withdrawing from a treaty and building a new generation of weapons, to be “lead[ing] the world to peace.”

Things are not so different when one turns to Barack Obama. According to Politifact’s “Obameter,” Obama made 508 separate promises during the campaign. Of these, he has fulfilled, by the Obameter’s count, 158, or just under a third—everything from ordering the troop surge in Afghanistan to removing don’t ask, don’t tell to reforming health care to reducing strategic nuclear weapons. He has broken, again according to Politifact’s count, fifty-four promises, just over 10 percent. But even on these, such as failing to end the Bush tax rates for upper-income taxpayers and passing “card check” for unions, generally the story is that Obama wound up placing a low priority on some items and was defeated on them. What I think is most telling is that of the original 508 promises, only two—two!—are “not yet rated,” implying that there’s been no action at all. What the Obameter is really telling us is the same thing that political scientists have found: presidents certainly try to carry out their campaign promises, and they succeed in many cases, although they’ll push harder on some things than on others, and they are sometimes defeated or forced to compromise. Campaign promises set the presidential agenda, even when they don’t tell you which items will pan out and which won’t.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

Let’s return to George H. W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler” speech, the one in which he made his (later broken) tax pledge. The first thing that’s notable about that speech is how few policy promises are contained in it; all candidates feature a lot of rhetorical flourishes in their convention speeches, but Bush’s was almost entirely composed of them. That in itself was a good predictor of his presidency, especially on the domestic side, in that Bush’s presidency was marked by passivity in domestic policy. But to the extent that he took policy positions, they were ideas on which he mostly followed through, from abortion to gun control to a vow to “make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream,” a pledge he redeemed by signing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. The discarded tax pledge, as it turned out, was clearly an exception.

So as you listen to Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republicans as they debate and make speeches and release policy papers, don’t assume that it’s all meaningless, empty rhetoric that will be dropped once the campaign is over and governing begins. Don’t assume, either, that since the Republican nominee will no doubt move (rhetorically) to the center after clinching the nomination, specific pledges made in the primary season will be left behind—remember the story of George W. Bush and tax cuts. The truth is that careful observation of the candidates really can tell us a good deal of what they’ll do—and what they’ll be like—as president.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.