Political upsets warm my soul. They’re comforting reminders that the election game isn’t hopelessly rigged towards incumbents and wealthy interests. A voter can still enter a curtained booth on Election Day and push a button to throw the bums out… even if it’s only to replace them with new bums.
Before you roll your eyes at this quaint thought, let’s review some recent political history.
In 1991 President George H. W. Bush had an 89 percent approval rating before losing his bid for re-election the following year to Bill Clinton, former governor of Arkansas. In 1995, I predicted to some conservative friends that, despite his bumpy first term, Clinton would be re-elected. They nearly laughed me out of the room. Yet Clinton did win, garnering 378 votes in the Electoral College. In the 2000 presidential election, candidate George W. Bush – governor of Texas who had served only one full term in office – beat Al Gore, who had been vice president for the previous eight years. The presidency came down to 500 votes in Florida, and a decision from the Supreme Court. Similarly, the 2004 election also came down to one state: Ohio. Bush won it by a 120,000-vote margin over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. During the Democratic Party nominating convention that year, a state senator from Illinois made an inspiring speech. That same man would begin his successful run for the presidency a mere 30 months later.
Even in hindsight, that summary of events is mind-blowing. Or at least it should be. Politicians like to use the “no one could’ve predicted” excuse when a crisis catches them flat-footed. Recent examples include 9/11, the levees failing on 8/29/05, and a housing crash that initiated a near-depression in December 2007.
In politics, though, it’s impossible to predict who will hold national office a decade later. Who would’ve predicted in 1962 that Richard Nixon would win a landslide 10 years later? In 1974, who would have predicted that Ronald Reagan would be re-elected in a landslide? Who foresaw a decade earlier that Clinton would dominate the 90’s and George W. Bush the 2000’s? It’s not just unpredictable; it’s nearly unfathomable.
If you’re unconvinced by that review, consider another data set, which brings my point closer to home:
In 2010, New Orleanians were represented by a white mayor, a Vietnamese-American congressman, a governor of Indian descent, and a black president. The white mayor won every precinct in the city except for one in the primary election. The governor of Indian descent won 60 of 64 parishes in the primary election. The black president garnered 368 electoral votes in his victory, including some from Indiana, North Carolina and Nebraska.
Ten years ago, if I told you any one of those political events would come to pass, you would have been shocked. If I predicted all of them to occur, you would’ve had the authorities escort me to the third floor of Charity Hospital.
Thus, let’s stipulate that wildly surprising turns of fortune abide in our politics. (It’s another reason to scoff when pols argue that businesses dislike political “uncertainty,” because it affects their long-range plans. I see. They have a firm grip on everything else – volatile markets, explosive foreign affairs, the weather – it’s just that dadgum “political uncertainty” that keeps holding the job-creators back. At what time in our history could we foresee a long stretch of “political certainty?” During which halcyon decades did we know, in advance, that “political certainty” would be maintained?)
While I believe surprising results are a positive aspect to our democratic system, you might object and say, “I don’t care which party they represent or what color their skin is, there’s still not a dime’s worth of difference between them! They’re all phony no-goodniks beholden to the ‘powers-that-be!’ ”
Hey, I’m not saying we couldn’t use more choices and better leaders. What I’m saying is that there’s too much contingency in “the political game” for it to be fatally rigged. A system that permits such wild twists and upsets can’t also guarantee the success of a particular candidate, no matter what interests are underwriting that candidate’s campaign. (Sure, these interests might wield their influence during the runoffs, or pressure a candidate after they’re elected. Clearly, the system is distorted and the “powers-that-be” know how to play the game. But that’s different than saying the game is not a game at all, and that it’s just an orchestrated entertainment with fait accompli results.)
That’s why I objected to Jeffrey’s claim that the political process is “just a goofy farce to keep us mildly entertained” before Gov. Mitt Romney eventually gets nominated. Lest you think I was simply picking on Jeffrey – which is fun, I’ll admit – I wasn’t. Other pundits have made statements about Romney’s seeming-inevitability. For example, a couple weeks ago nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker claimed:
The truth is, everyone has always known who the Republican nominee will be, but we enjoy the game.
Total horsecrap. I don’t care if Romney coasts to the nomination, that statement is stupid and insulting. It’s an “inevitability story” built around a snapshot in time. Romney appeared unbeatable to Parker, so she tells us his nomination has always been fated. Worse yet, Parker tars her readers with her perceived “truth.” If we only look deeper inside ourselves, she implies, we would acknowledge the real truth: it’s always been Romney and we just want to pretend otherwise. Why? Because it’s fun!
Well if that’s truly the case, then “everyone” should go to Intrade’s prediction markets and bet the farm on Romney. Where else can they safely double their money in the next nine months?
I don’t recommend that, though. (In fact, never construe anything I write as financial advice.) I’m not the first to point out that Romney is not the inevitable GOP presidential nominee. He’s a default candidate, not a frontrunner. GOP voters are not in a mood to compromise and play it safe, as evidenced by their current infatuation with the campaign of former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Back in May, I predicted that Gov. Bobby Jindal would endorse Gingrich. Three days later Gingrich made a seemingly fatal error when he criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan on national television. Gingrich’s staff then deserted him for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign. As we know, Jindal is a prudent guy with future political ambitions. He’s not known for taking rash political risks. Jindal’s endorsed Perry because he (correctly) bet that Romney was far from inevitable. It wasn’t because he thought supporting a Perry campaign would be a “fun” prelude during the run-up to Romney’s GOP coronation. A great number of influential donors supported Perry for the same reason: They truly believed he could become the nominee.
So if you say this is all a pre-ordained show, then you have to explain why Jindal and other politically astute GOP donors aligned themselves against the inevitable Romney campaign.
For the record, I’ll lay my political tarots on the table. Here’s my view of the likeliest scenarios for the GOP primaries. Feel free to outline yours in the comments:
1) Romney grinds down Gingrich and the others, and takes the nomination. GOP voters are not thrilled by this result, and there’s talk of a conservative third-party or Tea Party alternative. I’ll say this scenario has a 45 percent chance of occurring.
2) Gingrich parlays his current momentum into early primary victories and wins the nomination without a traditionally large staff or campaign bank account. This would be another one of those utterly mind-blowing results that nobody could’ve foreseen 10 years ago (much less two months ago.) Establishment conservatives are horrified, because Gingrich seems to match up poorly with Barack Obama. Republican up-and-comers like Jindal begin salivating for 2016. I’d handicap this possibility as having a35 percent likelihood.
3) Alarmed at Gingrich’s surprising ascent, the conservative establishment torpedoes Gingrich before the Iowa caucus. Another “non-Romney” candidate takes his place. In my mind, Perry fills the bill here, because he has the money to buy himself a second look and a talented staff who can attempt to reinvent him. Perry rebrands himself as the “faith” candidate who will best protect us from gays in the military, and the secular culture’s war on Christmas.
Sure, a Perry resurgence still seems implausible now, after his epic brain freeze during the debates. However, Perry is no further down than Gingrich was earlier this summer. I’d rate the possibility of a Perry campaign resurrection at 15 percent, which is much higher than the current conventional wisdom.
4) I’ll group all the other scenarios together, from a “revolution” led by Texas Rep. Ron Paul, to a Santorum surge, to a brokered GOP convention that drafts former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In sum, I’d say there’s a 5 percent chance of something extra-weird happening.
Your numbers may vary from mine. Just don’t tell me that Mitt Romney, of all candidates, is “inevitable.” Don’t tell me that this default candidate’s nomination is such a lead-pipe cinch that there’s no chance scenarios 2, 3 or 4 could ever occur.
If political history teaches us anything, it’s that no political campaign is inevitable. It’s simplistic to say so and downright insulting to imply, as Parker did, that anyone who believes otherwise is deceiving themselves.