Why Grading Candidates on a Curve is Dangerous

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Whether you are voting red or blue on November 8, you probably agree that as this tumultuous campaign continues, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are being graded on a curve.

As a professor, I know all about the concept of grading on a curve — taking a group of individuals and assessing them on a relative basis, meaning objective achievement is not measured.

There is an old joke about two campers awakened by a grizzly bear outside their tent. The first camper jumps up and runs out of the tent barefoot. The second takes a moment to put on his sneakers and ties them up. The first camper yells to the second, “What are you doing? The bear will catch you!” The second camper answers, as he runs past the first, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.”

The camper doesn’t have to be fast on an absolute basis, just fast enough to outrun his delicious friend.

Grading on a curve is a method used when you know that at the end of an evaluation you have to give everyone a grade, and some people must get As.

In the context of a U.S. election, one of the candidates must win — someone will “get the A.”

The negativity surrounding Clinton and Trump — whatever the source and cause — is leading many Americans to state that they have chosen their candidate because he or she is the lesser of two evils.

The candidates and their advisors now understand that it’s not really about being objectively better but being relatively better. They don’t care about outrunning the bear, only that their challenger gets devoured.

However, grading on the curve does not have to be about being the best among relatively bad choices. It can in fact be a tool for making a fine distinction between excellent choices. As I have learned from my own experience as a grader, the curve forces distinctions to make a grade distribution; it does not provide a mechanism to qualify the participants.

The segmentation of our political discussion adds complexity. It masks the reality that most Americans do have common criteria against which they evaluate politicians. If you look at how people feel about the institution — Congress or the Presidency — you can get a sense of these common objective criteria. We broadly expect our politicians to be honest, hardworking, smart and interested in looking out for our interests.

Ideological differences add an additional level of criteria — consider for example, how important a decisive leadership style is to a Republican voter or empathy is to a Democrat. Our current political environment reinforces those differences in ideological criteria as a way to get us to grade against the curve. We do not talk about the commonality nor do we measure against the broader criteria we all share. It’s not about being excellent — it’s about being just better than the other guy. And that’s why our political campaigns are so negative.

In order to allow the United States to break this cycle, there are two choices available. We could, like many other nations, include in our system the concept of a no-confidence vote to trigger new elections when politicians don’t do their jobs. Or, through its nominating processes the parties could utilize our common objective criteria as the first guiding principles for candidate selection.

In short, let us be able to choose excellence. How can we get our political system to facilitate that?

This commentary was originally published on Huffington Post.

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