When you vote for Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney in November, you'll be voting for more than a president. You'll be casting a ballot for and against a checklist of policies that touch your life and shape the country you live in.
It can be hard to see, through the fog of negative ads, sound bite zingers and assorted other campaign nasties, that the election is a contest of actual ideas. But it is always so. A candidate's words connect to deeds in office.
Roll back to 2008. Obama was the presidential candidate who promised to get the country on a path to health insurance for all. He delivered. If you haven't noticed one way or another, soon you will.
And back to 2000. George W. Bush ran on a platform of big tax cuts. That's precisely what the country got. A decade later, taxes are lower than they otherwise would have been.
That's not to say you can count on Romney's checklist or Obama's to come into full being. You sure can't.
By nature and necessity, the presidency is in large part a creature of compromise and improvisation. The unforeseen happens (the terrorist attacks), or circumstances change (the December 2007-June 2009 recession), or things that the candidate sets out to do run into a buzz saw in Congress (way too many examples to mention). That's why promises are broken, priorities shift and intentions get swept away by the fistful.
Even so, you get what you vote for, probably about as often as not. And a lot of what you get, you will feel in a personal way, for better or worse, no matter how distant Washington seems from your world.
The wars called away people in your orbit, if not in your family. The spending that each candidate wants to do — Romney vows military expansion, Obama would put more into education, for starters — is bound to benefit many livelihoods in some fashion, at the risk of even deeper national debt. And read their fine print: Medicare won't be the same in the years ahead. Perhaps not Social Security, either. (There's that national debt, after all.)
Across the spectrum of issues, Obama and Romney have drawn contrasts and telegraphed divergent ways for the nation to go.
You can't believe everything you hear. But you can believe enough to know that Tuesday, Nov. 6, is a true day of decision.
In this series, Associated Press writers who cover subjects at stake in the election look at the positions of the candidates, the underlying issues — and why it matters.