Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Clinton-Trump campaign would be the most entertaining but meaningless campaign ever

After Clinton's and Trump's victories in New York last night, it is time, once again, to think about what a general election campaign between those two would look like.

Entertaining, obviously.  Consequential?  Not likely.

Yesterday, I gave a talk about political narratives, and the relationship between campaigns and narrative structure.  In literature, the epitome of tightly structured narrative is probably Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.  Every event follows necessarily from the previous event, making the endpoint logical and inevitable.  I contrasted that with a book called Grimspace by Ann Aguirre.  It was a fun, but ultimately pointless sci-fi novel in which there isn't so much a plot as a sequence of disconnected events that the author used to get to a predefined endpoint, predictable from the beginning.

Campaigns are more like Grimspace than Oedipus Rex.  Fun to watch, but the endpoint is predetermined, and the steps along the way are ultimately just entertaining diversions that don't necessarily have a logical connection to the endpoint.

At the end of a presidential general election campaign, it is mostly about the economy.  When the economy is growing, the party in control of the White House keeps it.  When the economy is weak, control switches.  So, what about the campaign?  The poll numbers will frequently move during the course of the campaign, but at the end, they tend to converge to what we would have predicted given the economy.

Why, then, do the numbers move during the course of the campaign?  My general opinion is that campaigns inform people about the economy, the party divisions and the candidates themselves, who are normally little more than partisan ciphers.  The campaign is what causes convergence to the nigh-inevitable end result, and whatever gaffes we find entertaining along the way generally amount to nothing.  But, that relies on the premise that voters are uncertain about one or both candidates.

Clinton and Trump.  Neither are incumbents, but anyone likely to vote already knows who both are, and has firm opinions.  There is nothing about which to inform voters, save for the state of the economy.

Clinton will attack Trump.  Trump will attack Clinton.  But, attacks matter only inasmuch as they inform the uninformed.  If everyone's opinions of Clinton and Trump are already well-formed, then this may be the most entertaining but pointless campaign ever.

I can't wait!  Did I mention that I enjoyed reading Grimspace more than Oedipus Rex?

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