I actually went to a local political debate between an incumbent Republican congressman and his Democrat and Libertarian opponents. It was sponsored by the ASUSU student organization and a terrific example of the concept behind a cross-sectional longitudinal research design when compared with debates on more of a national stage. You use this to get a look at development over time when you don't want to (or can't) spend the time doing so. Instead, you a snapshot of different phases of development and make the assumption that they are reflective of the normal process. So you might assume that politicians early in their careers are much more frank and willing to take a stand than they are later in their careers. Of course the analogy breaks down a bit because generally you'd be quantifying this and using much larger samples.
We'll start with the candidate (Libertarian) least likely to get elected. He was unabashedly forward about his beliefs, in fact at one point he talked about wanting the free market to prevail in three different things: business (he thought AIG should have been left for dead--as an aside, if we had regulated properly would we have a sole privately owned business with so much market share that it's going down would destroy the World's economy?), health care, and--here's the real kicker, he wanted to make sure the market could prevail on fighting terrorism. Now before you start thinking Blackwater I'm not sure that's where he wanted to go (because they're government contracted--or is it government subcontracted through the Vice President's former company?) but it does frankly strike me as out on the lunatic fringe. Mostly because a private company can't negotiate or engage in diplomacy on behalf of the US, and probably wouldn't have the kinds of incentives to fight poverty and other conditions that can lead to terrorism.
Next, the Democrat who in this year actually has more of a shot than you might think in Utah. He was willing to express his views, was a little more elegant, a little more educated (for instance he brought up the difference between radioactive and nuclear waste), but was still willing to be very direct at times, maybe to his own detriment. For instance, in that same question about storing nuclear waste in Utah he said we weren't currently, just radioactive but that he would be opposed to storing anything in our great state especially waste from overseas. He also called out the Republican for refusing to work with him on a bill to that effect and taking $26k from Energy Solutions.
Enter the incumbent. He's been to Washington, knows the ropes and his response to the
questions was this. In a slightly rough moment (that or massive hubris) he said it wasn't $26k but $28k, and not from Energy Solutions but from employees who "happened" to work at Energy Solutions (which makes all kinds of difference to me, let me tell you--that and the fact that 14 people gave him about half my annual salary for an election campaign makes him sound like a real regular Joe). Now it's possible that I missed what the bill was about or the framing of the original question, but when both of the other debate participants seemed squarely focused on what was happening in Utah this guy proceeded to do something you'll see more about below. He said he'd do whatever Utah wanted, but he refused to work on this particular bill because he saw it as a states rights issue. He was very elegant, he talked about Washington State importing waste from Vancouver and was concerned that the bill would limit the ability of other states to make decisions about what they wanted. My concern is that he never really answered the question.
Now let's take a look at the National stage where Obama and McCain have very close views on Abortion and Gay Marriage. This is a radical over-simplification but they essentially both refer to these as State's rights. It's not their role as executive to push federal law to ban abortion, but it should be up to individual states to decide. I went to WSU after the fact, but heard the stories about how the sovereignty of states creates really interesting consequences. Back in the day the Idaho legal drinking age was lower than Washington's. As a consequence the seven mile stretch of highway 26 between Pullman Washington and Moscow Idaho had no small number of legal/underage drinkers returning home and go figure some of them were driving. I may not be a political scientist but both of these issues have consequences for other states. I think people who fall on either side of these issues should be really mad that their candidate of choice refuses to make a choice (no pun intended).