The First Political Casualty of 2008: The near death of conventional wisdom
This article was supposed to have been a post-mortem analysis of the 2008 presidential primary season. At least that’s what I thought I would write when I first proposed it. But that was back in the halcyon days of another era (exactly six weeks ago), when our understanding of American politics was guided by certain rules, not in the sense of laws, but more like established customs—principles, which we could rely upon to accurately predict the outcomes of elections. We called this body of knowledge “the conventional wisdom.”
The problem is that the conventional wisdom has been failing us in what is turning out to be the most dramatic election in the history of U.S. presidential primaries. Super Tuesday has come and gone and we still don’t know who our nominees are, although it would seem that the Republicans now have a frontrunner. While it might be tempting to conduct a post mortem of the corpse of conventional wisdom, the patient, though rather ill, is not yet dead. To be fair, some events in the last few weeks have proven the CW (as it’s called in the political classes) correct. But perhaps more than in any other recent election, the CW has proven an inadequate guide. What follows is a top-ten list of our patient’s symptoms: ten points when the punditry thought it had it figured out:
1. All will be decided on Super-duper-once-in-all -of-cosmic-history-Tuesday: The CW said that February 5, 2008 would be the day when we would know with metaphysical certainty who the presidential nominees would be. This was the day when a candidate in each party would cross the Rubicon, looking only forward with giddy speculation to conventions, running mates and November. That didn’t happen. And although pundits don’t say this often, we do not now know what’s going to happen. Anyone who claims to know is either delusional or mischievous.
What we do know is that John McCain is two-thirds of the way to the nomination according to the most recent delegate counts. The CW says that the departure of Romney from the field on Thursday helps McCain. But that outcome is by no means assured given that Huckabee seems intent on pursuing the frontrunner until his last dog dies. On the democratic side, Super Tuesday was a draw between Clinton and Obama, who now enter a long, possibly bitter war of attrition that risks the good prospects of the Democratic Party in November. Now more contests lie ahead and places like the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia (who would have thought this was possible?) may play a decisive role. It was hardly a super Tuesday.
2. Money Matters Most: Joe Kane, Joe Kennedy Sr.’s political dirty trickster, once gave voice to another tenet of the CW: “Politics,” he said, “is like war. It takes three things to win: The first is money and the second is money and the third is money.” Oh sure, a candidate could be outspent on the margins and still win an election, according to the CW, but he could never be outspent by 10 or 15 to one and still compete effectively.
And then there’s Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s presidential campaign came out of nowhere and nowhere is not a wealthy place, so the CW said he didn’t have the cash and wouldn’t be competitive. Indeed Huckabee has been outspent 15 or 20 to one by his principal opponents. Yet, amazingly, he has won six contests, including some impressive wins on Super Tuesday. It is all the more impressive when you consider this: Ron Paul, who has not been competitive in any contest, has raised three times more than Huckabee’s relatively paltry $10 million. Huckabee’s entire bank account is roughly equivalent to what Amy Klobuchar spent to win a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota in 2006, or about what Ted Kennedy spent in Massachusetts to beat a candidate no one had ever heard of.
3. Polls don’t lie: Politicians (especially when they are losing) like to say that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. That has actually been true in many of the 2008 primary contests, but it’s not supposed to be. The CW says that modern polling science is right most of the time. In 2008, it has been right a lot of the time, but as we know, there have been some notable failures: In Iowa, one credible poll had Clinton leading Obama by nine points the day before the election, yet the average of all the polls in Iowa had Obama winning by less than one percent. Obama won Iowa by eight points. In Michigan, half the polls had McCain leading the day before voting, yet Romney carried his native state by nearly ten points. In South Carolina, Obama led Clinton by ten points in the polls on election morning. By the evening, he had won the vote by almost thirty points. And on Super Tuesday, most polls predicted a win for Obama in California, but Clinton eventually won the state by ten points.
And then there’s New Hampshire: We all remember this one because it was the worst polling disaster since “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Going into Election Day, Obama led in every poll taken in New Hampshire, seven of which were conducted by credible and experienced pollsters. All of them were wrong.
4. X must win Y: This is a standard formula for expressing the CW, which says that certain situations make certain states “make or break” for certain candidates. For instance, one version this year was “Giuliani must win Florida.” This made sense: the former New York City mayor had gambled his entire campaign on Florida, even telling reporters at one point that the candidate who won Florida would win the nomination. Rudy was trounced in the Florida primary and, heeding the CW, he dropped out. While it is probably also true that John McCain had to win New Hampshire for similar reasons as Giuliani in Florida, there have been other moments in this race that have defied this logic. Consider these three:
Edwards must win Iowa: Iowa was do or die for Edwards, said the CW. He wouldn’t have the money to compete beyond a second or third place Iowa finish and the media would only focus on Obama and Clinton. Yet Edwards survived defeat in Iowa, mounting serious and credible campaigns in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Romney must win New Hampshire: Mitt Romney, the unexpected second-place finisher in Iowa had to win New Hampshire, said the CW, because it was the backyard of his home state and no candidate from Massachusetts had ever lost the New Hampshire presidential primary. Yet Romney lost to McCain and lived to fight another day in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida, where he was told he would have to win. He lost in Florida as well and competed on Super Tuesday, where he won several contests.
Huckabee must win South Carolina: The CW said that the Palmetto State was Huckabee country: He’s a southerner and South Carolina has a lot of evangelical voters. He had to win there or it would mean that his base had deserted him. Yet Huckabee lost in South Carolina and still went on to have a good night on Super Tuesday.
5. Young people don’t vote: This has been true for decades, the CW said. There will never be another candidate who can bring the young people to the polls like Bobby Kennedy did. How about Barack Obama? Obama, who has a special appeal among the young, has motivated many of them: the number of young voters has increased everywhere. In Georgia, turnout among young voters was triple what it was in the last presidential cycle, and in New York five times as many young people went to the polls than in 2004.
6. The political classes will decide: The CW told us that there was an elite establishment in both parties exercising a Godfather-like control over the direction of the political campaign. For the Republicans, it’s the conservative media. The CW told us that McCain couldn’t overcome the animus of conservative talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh who control the minds of his right-leaning listeners and seems intent on a political jihad against the Arizona Senator. Yet McCain has been winning in Republican primaries that are closed to independents.
The CW also said that Obama would never overcome the party titans lining up for Hillary who command the labor and special interest storm troops that form the bulwark of the Democratic Party. Yet Obama seems undeterred, and both he and McCain are benefiting from a 2008 electorate that seems to have the audacity to decide for themselves whom to vote for.
7. Endorsements don’t matter: This one is tricky. Most of the time endorsements don’t matter because they rarely translate into votes, as was indicated by Obama’s loss in Massachusetts after a much-heralded endorsement from Ted Kennedy. But that endorsement did matter in two important ways: it gave Obama forty-eight hours of free and largely positive media in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, and it took the sting out of Hillary’s charge that Obama lacked the experience to be president when Teddy told us that people said the same thing about his brother. True, there isn’t a direct chain of causality between the endorsement and any outcome on Super Tuesday, but the endorsement contributed to a growing perception that Obama was surging and it was therefore a big part of Obama’s momentum—an all-important, but mysterious force, which can powerfully influence political campaigns.
8. It’s the war in Iraq: The CW said this campaign would be about the war in Iraq, so much so that John McCain, the war hero and would-be statesman, openly confessed that he knew little about economics. The CW also said that illegal immigration would be the second most important issue. Then two things happened: we began to see something resembling stability in Baghdad and the economy started its descent into Recession National Airport. It took awhile for the political class and the candidates to figure out what happened. Even though polling showed as early as December that there were serious misgivings about the economy among voters, the debates were still dominated by questions about immigration and Iraq. As late as mid-January, only Ron Paul was willing to declare emphatically that the U.S. was headed into a recession. That didn’t endear the G.O.P. to voters who were seeing their mortgage bills rise while the markets fell.
The CW also said that immigration would only cost McCain Republican votes, because the immigration reform proposal he authored was so hated by the influential G.O.P firebrands. Yet it turned out that the Republican voters who cared most of all about the issue were Latinos who voted in Florida for the immigration-friendlier John McCain, putting him over the top in an important primary.
9. Stay on message: This is a dogma of the CW: no matter what happens, stick to your message. That’s why Hillary Clinton is continually assaulting our patience with talk of her experience and Obama can’t go to the water cooler without mentioning change. But one candidate broke this rule with impressive ease and unpredictable results. Mitt Romney changed his message not once but four times. There was Romney 1.0, the Massachusetts liberal Republican. But Giuliani was in the race and there was only room for one liberal Republican candidate. So the campaign launched Romney 2.0, the social conservative. But then Huckabee won the social conservatives, so the campaign released Romney 3.0, the change-agent, telling us how Washington was broken and that only an outsider like him could fix it. Then the economy went south, and the campaign released Romney 4.0, the successful businessman who understood how to create jobs. At his withdrawal announcement on Thursday, Romney 5.0, the across-the-boards, no surrender, ideological conservative was introduced and then quickly pulled from the shelves.
Now one might argue that the conventional wisdom is right, a candidate should not change his message and that this might be the reason why Romney, who has struggled against charges of personal hypocrisy, was forced from the race today. I suspect, however, that the only reason Romney got as far as he did was because of his adaptability to a political situation that was shifting directions faster than a California wildfire. Romney, more than any of the other G.O.P candidates, heard the voters’ cries for change and their concerns about the economy and nimbly adjusted his position accordingly. In that sense, going off his message may have helped him.
10. X won’t vote for Y: This is another formula used to express the CW. It has been employed much in this election, and it’s frequently been wrong:
Whites won’t vote for a black candidate (false).
Men won’t vote for a woman (false).
Republicans won’t vote for McCain (false).
Non-evangelicals won’t vote for Huckabee (false).
Of course the formulation has been true at times in this race and there still are some questions left to answer: Will Latinos vote for a black candidate? (Probably, because it’s likely not his race that’s stopping them.) Would independents vote for McCain or Obama? (Probably Obama, but hard to say.) Would America have voted for a Mormon for president? (I would hope that someone’s religion wouldn’t matter, but the truth is that I just don’t know.)
And “I just don’t know” is probably as good a phrase as any with which to end this list. Turns out that so far in 2008 we thought we knew more than we actually did. Now we’re all supposed to be a little more humble and a lot less reliant on the wisdom of seemingly omniscient pundits who should now know better. At least, that’s what the conventional wisdom says.