Saturday, May 21, 2016

What makes a strong candidate?

In yesterday's post, I addressed the fact that the underlying conditions for the 2016 election make a Republican victory plausible, and possibly outright favored.  Trump's standing in the polls simply reflects that.  But what about the candidates?  Can good candidates outperform the models?  Can weak ones underperform?  And what makes a strong candidate?

At the congressional level, I learned everything I know by reading Gary Jacobson.  Well, not quite, but close enough.  In Jacobson's work, he distinguishes between congressional challengers who have held elected office before, and those who have not.  Experienced candidates, not surprisingly, do a lot better.  They raise more money (which matters a lot for challengers, although probably less so for incumbents), get more attention, and win more votes.  Built into this process is a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.  Inexperienced candidates are written off as sure losers, so they never get the resources or attention needed to win.  But, the experience matters in and of itself.  If it were just about money, self-funded candidates would do well.  The vast majority lose.  Yes, I know, you are coming up with a list of names in your head of self-funded candidates who won.  Now, try to list the ones who lost.  You can't.  Why not?  Nobody remembers the losers.  Except Jennifer Steen, who wrote the book on self-funded candidates, showing that most lose.  It ain't the money, kids.

What about the presidential level?  Well, the last time we had a presidential nominee with no experience in elected office, it was the guy who beat Hitler.  We don't know what happens with a truly inexperienced presidential candidate like Trump.  At a congressional level, the more experienced candidate tends to win.  Hillary has more governmental experience.  That would favor her.  But maybe it's different for presidential elections.  We need data to know, and currently, we have zero observations.

But let's be realistic.  Candidate strength is more complex.  For a more nuanced view, we turn to the guy who saw Trump's victory coming long before I did-- Jonathan Krasno.  Krasno took issue with Jacobson's simple distinction between inexperienced and experienced candidates, and created a more elaborate point system that distinguished between levels of experience, fame from other sources, and political skill.  That more nuanced view was important in order to explain Senate elections, which was Krasno's goal.

This is where the Hillary/Donald thing gets more complicated.  Fame?  Trump is pretty famous.  But, Krasno was trying to explain Senate elections.  By the end of a Senate election, it is plausible that few voters know who the challenger is.  Let's face it:  when Barack Obama ran for the Senate seat in Illinois in 2004, he was more famous than his opponent, Alan Keyes.  When celebrities of various forms run for office, they start with an advantage that other candidates don't have.

In presidential elections, though, by November, everybody knows both candidates, so it isn't clear how much of an advantage prior fame is.  And Hillary is pretty famous too.

Then there's that difficult-to-conceptualize thing, skill.  Is Hillary Clinton a skilled campaigner?  She is cautious, but I've never seen an indication of great campaign skill.  Trump?  Umm, I don't know.

For yesterday's jazz series, I described Lenny Breau as the greatest guitarist ever.  You've never heard of Lenny Breau before.  Even if you know a bit about jazz, you probably don't know Lenny Breau, who was never as famous as Les Paul, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass...  And if you don't know jazz, you probably would have said that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist ever.

Let me explain Lenny Breau to you.  Lenny Breau started playing country music with his family.  At 15, he was better at Chet Atkins' style than Chet Atkins.  And I love Chet Atkins.  Then, he moved to jazz, and by 20, he was playing a unique style that made Wes Montgomery look rudimentary.  And he dabbled in flamenco.  By "dabbled," I mean that he was in a league with Carlos Montoya.  And it was a side-line hobby for him.

Lenny Breau then decided that the guitar, as normally played, was just pointlessly easy.  He had a seven-string guitar specially designed for him (as opposed to the normal 6), and developed a style in which he fretted chords using his index and middle finger, while playing lead lines on top using his ring finger and pinky, matching his right thumb, index and middle finger to pick the underlying chords, and his right ring finger and pinky to pick the lead lines.

But that was too simple.  So sometimes he would fret while using one finger of his right hand to gently touch the string at an even interval to create an artificial harmonic, and a separate right hand finger to pluck that string.  Then he would play a few bars like that.

I like Jimi Hendrix.  I like Chet Atkins.  But Lenny Breau was just on a different level entirely from any other guitarist.

And you've never heard of him.  He died in obscurity in 1984.  No major label recording contracts, drug problems prevented him from regular touring, and he was murdered by a random mugger.

Now let me tell you about some people who were more famous than Lenny Breau.  At some point in the late '90s, I turned on Saturday Night Live for the last time.  What I heard was the most painful, wretched, artistically worthless sound I have ever heard.  The agony still haunts me.  Eventually, someone infected my brain with knowledge of the group's name.  "The Spice Girls."

As far as I can tell, "The Spice Girls" had no musical talent whatsoever.  But they got rich pretending to be musicians, and Lenny Breau never did.  Were "The Spice Girls" talented, or lucky that their offensively bad "music" coincided with popular tastes at the time?

Now, back to Donald Trump.  How much of Donald Trump's schtick has been specifically crafted for the Republican primary electorate, and how much of it is just that his unique braggadocio and extreme rhetoric, which are impulsive rather than strategic, happen to line up with the current tastes of the Republican primary electorate?

The answer matters, because if it is a strategic choice, then Donald Trump is one of the great campaigners of all time, and he can shift his campaign in a way that will appeal to the general electorate.  If it is the lucky coincidence that his persona matches the preferences of the Republican electorate, then Trump is an especially weak general election candidate.

And how much does that distinction matter?  Again, we don't know.  We have never had a presidential nominee this far outside the norm.  Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George HW Bush, Michael Dukakis, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George McGovern, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy...  They have more in common with each other than any of them has with Donald Trump.

He could be a weak candidate.  He could be a strong candidate.  Candidate strength might not matter in presidential elections.  What's going to happen?  I have no idea.  So, I default to the political science models that have served me better than any of the crappy models we use for primaries.  The economy is growing tepidly, and the Democrats have won two in a row.  Writing off Trump just because he's Donald Trump?  There isn't a strong case for that.

Trump could win.

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