Sometimes one of the candidates makes it explicit: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Sometimes the question remains implicit, only hinted at by one TV that only airs once: The famous "daisy" commercial that Lyndon Johnson's campaign used to ask about Barry
Goldwater, "Can you trust this guy with the atom bomb?"
Sometimes it's a question that seems frivolous: "Who would you rather have a beer with? Al Gore or George Bush?"
Sometimes it's a question that is more lofty: "What will it take to get America moving again?"
At the moment, as the Iowa caucuses approach, it appears that the Republican Party is split; there are two different questions, and depending on which question you ask, you get a different answer.
One question is, "Who in this field is the 'real' Republican?" In other words, who is a real conservative--and who is just faking it? This is a matter of ideological purity.
The other question is, "Who has the best chance of winning the general election in November, and beating Obama for the White House?" This is a matter of electoral pragmatism.
And then there is the November election to consider.
By the time it rolls around, what will the question be?
Frequently, the side that controls the question, controls the election.
But thanks in part to the Occupy Movement and in part to the internet and social media, while both sides (and a possible third party candidate) fight to define the question that defines the election, for the first time in memory, the question may get decided in a much more democratic, if amorphous and ambiguous fashion.
The question this time may emerge from emails and tweets, from Facebook postings and blogs.
It may be too early to suggest what "the question" will turn out to be.
But I think it would be reasonable to think that, no matter who the Republicans nominate, when it comes time for the first debate, the first and most important question for the candidates to answer should be, "If you're elected President in 2012, what difference will it actually make?"
And then keep answering that one question until somebody finally gets real.
That's a debate I'd like to watch.
For a change.
All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb