Wednesday, July 13, 2011

14 Year Rule? Not So Much

Jonathan Rauch has been asking for it this week over at Sullivan's place, so he's gonna get. But not on the subject of blogging: on the subject of presidential elections. Rauch is pushing his idea that "you can't be elected president in America if it takes you longer than 14 years to make it from governor or senator to president or vice president." Sorry, but it's bunk.

Here's the original piece Rauch wrote, way back in 2003. At that point, he could argue that every president but one elected beginning with Teddy Roosevelt fit, and 12 of 18 losing major-party nominees from 1904 through 2000. Since then, he's one-for-one with newly elected presidents, but 0-for-2 on losing nominees: John Kerry has been in the Senate since 1985, and John McCain since 1987, so neither passing his test -- meaning that only 12 of 20 losing nominees fit.

As Rauch admitted in 2003, one can in fact come up with all sorts of patterns, although he later claims that it's hard to find one that works for a century. I disagree! Let's see if I can do it...we're talking 19 people, and he's giving himself one mulligan. Here's a list by date of birth -- guess what? None of the 19 were born in the three months from February 7 through May 7. That's a quarter of the year, and no presidents! Or: only one president was born from the 16th through the 26th day of the month. That's 11 days, over a third of all possible days -- and yet only a single exception defied the 16-26 rule. In fact, McKinley qualifies under both of those rules, so make it 19 or 20 out of 20. I'm too lazy to look up which day of the week they were born, but odds are that there's a day missing...try some stuff about the alphabet, name length, shoe size, whatever -- it's very, very easy to find that kind of thing. And while I'd be pressed to come up with a theory explaining the 16-26 thing (c'mon, creative commenters, I know you can do it), I'm sure I could think of some plausible-sounding reason that modern presidents aren't born in late winter/early spring.

OK, I should get to the real point here, which is that we know a whole lot about who wins presidential elections, and we can almost certainly eliminate any major proposed factor that is candidate-based and large. There just isn't enough unexplained variation, once you account for party and familiar "fundamentals" such as the economy and war, for it to be possible that there's a large candidate (or campaign factor). Some, yes. Two points, three, maybe. That's important, and well worth learning more about -- and if you're running a campaign, well worth working hard to exploit, if it's possible to exploit it. But if you think that the candidates' height, or hair color, or handedness, or whatever, matters, it just really can't, very much.

In the general election.

For the nomination, we actually know very little about what factors produce nominees, and we certainly can't rule out anything that makes some sense without testing it first. If you told me that the best looking candidate has a large advantage in nomination contests, I'd be open to the possibility that it's true. If you tell me that about the general election, and you're saying that large is more than a couple of points, then I'm going to tell you that it just isn't plausible. From that it's easy to conclude that if any candidate or campaign based effect "works" for the general election but not for nominations, it's almost certainly bunk. Which is exactly where I'll file Rauch's 14 year rule.


  1. McNulty already has a theory he calls the "hair theory."
    I don't think he came up with it, though.

    However, there are a lot of these.

    If you treat the years of an election as separate digits and add them up (ie, 2011 = 2+0+1+1=4), then we elect white presidents every time, unless the total is 10, in which case it's a 50% chance.

    No President has ever been elected that wasn't born in Virginia, Ohio, Massachussetts, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, or Kenya.

    No bald person has ever been elected president.

    No president has ever been elected in an odd-numbered year.

    No president has ever spoken fluent Tagalog.

    And ones that are true and I hope continue:

    No president was a batshit insane 3 term rank-and-file House member.

    No president had a reality TV show.

    No presidential candidate has ever been caught in a hot tob with a same-gendered raccoon.

    1. George Washington was elected in 1789 an odd year!

  2. Actually, both Adamses, Martin Van Buren, and most recently Eisenhower were bald.

    But of course, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. (Also, John Adams wore a wig.)

  3. UG: all of them stole their respective elections!

    J/K....I was just making stuff up; thanks for playing along

  4. The 14 year rule says a lot more about how the national press wants a protean candidate (cough, Obama) than one with a backstory (cough, Ron paul. Or al gore.)

  5. In my elementary school, the absence of birthday parties in the Spring compared to other times of the year was quite noticeable. There is a reason.

    Nine months before the February 7 - May 7 time period is May 7 - August 7. Before air conditioning became widespread (all of the presidents were born in the pre-air conditioning era), it was just too hot to make babies in the Summer in much of the United States.

    Of the two presidents born in May, JFK was pborably conceived in the very breezy and atypicla

  6. [Sorry about that unfinished post above. Here's the full comment]

    In my elementary school, the absence of birthday parties in the Spring compared to other times of the year was quite noticeable. There is a reason.

    Nine months before the February 7 - May 7 time period is May 7 - August 7. Before air conditioning became widespread (all of the presidents were born in the pre-air conditioning era), it was just too hot to make babies in the Summer in much of the United States.

    Of the two presidents born in May, JFK was probably conceived in the very breezy and atypically temperate Hyannis, Massachusetts. Can't explain Truman though.

  7. Maybe nominations in which the candidate wins are different from the ones in which the candidate loses. The smartest, most ambitious candidates have guessed the outcome and don't want to lose--they wait until a year in which they're more likely to win.

    I mean, this 14 year rule is probably bogus but if you wanted to defend it that's what you'd have to argue.

  8. Rauch does have a hypothesis to explain his 14-year rule, doesn't he? He explains that after 14 years or so a candidate seems "stale". Rauch might be wrong, surely, but he clearly isn't wrong because other, unrelated, phenomena obviously arise by coincidence. Rejecting an argument because its apples aren't like other oranges is not a particularly strong analysis.

    What of Rauch's 'staleness' theory? If we restate it as "an unknown seems to have more upside", there are other undisputed, if unrelated, examples of this. Consider the NBA draft, where NBA-ready college seniors like Shane Battier or Nick Collison are always selected after unproven 19-year-old phenoms. Might a similar effect influence presidential elections? Seems plausible, at least reasonable enough that one shouldn't reject it because no citizen born on the 22nd has risen to the Presidency, or other irrelevant trivia.

    In fact, when the subsequent post suggests that Palin is still a plausible Presidential candidate, there's a clear implication that her window is closing. Her window is closing in large part because the more we experience her, the more sick of her we become. No one would really dispute, would they, that Palin's presidential aspirations have a sell-by date, and further that such a date has likely passed? Isn't that basically a tautology at this point?

    Sure, your average Presidential aspirant may not have Palin-style baggage that causes our sympathy to turn to malice. But if we can think of a clear example of a Presidential contender with an expiration date for their aspirations, isn't it silly to toss the concept into a heap of meaningless trivia without further investigation?

  9. Jonathan Rauch here. Interesting post. But misses some things.

    1. The rule says nothing about nominees' needing to be fresh. It's that stale nominees don't get elected president.

    2. My "mulligan" (Lyndon Johnson) really isn't one. First, House experience doesn't count, a nicety I missed in my original column (no one but Garfield has been elected president from the House); Johnson, in 1960, had only 12 years on his clock. Even if you dismiss the Senate/House distinction as cherry-picking, it's a stretch to think Johnson could have reached the presidency on his own steam (absent Kennedy's death) after losing the nomination in 1960.

    3. Humorous overstatement aside, there's nothing magical about the number 14. But, as CSH rightly says, freshness is a real political quality and there's a theoretical basis to think it matters to voters.

    4. Get back to me if Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, or Buddy Roemer is elected president. Then we'll talk.

  10. Wow, you got Jonathan Rauch's attention, Jon...nicely done. (BTW, I *just* taught my students demosclerosis not 2 hours ago!)

  11. If I understand it correctly, Jonathan Rauch's argument can be pretty much characterized as a special, presidential politics case of the old saw that 'familiarity breeds contempt'. Seems reasonable, no? More so than a special presidential politics case of the not-as-popular old saw that 'people born on the 22nd don't amount to squat'?

    As most in this audience know, if John Kerry had flipped about 60,000 or so votes in Ohio, the Presidency would have been his in 2004. Was familiarity-bred contempt responsible for 60,000 otherwise-Democrat Ohio votes - 2% of Bush's total - going to Bush in 2004? Hard to know for sure, but given Kerry's long and controversial track record, it wouldn't be the craziest idea in the world.

    In fact, IMHO LBJ is not a problem for the theory, he's the exception that proves the rule. Rauch's reminder above that LBJ was a hopeless non-candidate after his 1960 flameout is a bit jarring, no? Its hard to remember him as a tiresome backbencher with unrealistic, outsized Presidential aspirations. In some sense, his somber taking of the oath after Kennedy's assassination in a way reset the bar for LBJ, as if he became a differeynt, unfamiliar politician, in a different, unfamiliar moment, no more bearing the equity of the tired old figure the Democratic voters rejected in 1960.

    To a lesser extent, you could make the same 'reset the bar' argument for Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, where he seemed not at all like the go-along, get-along ne'er-do-well the nation almost voted for 10 months earlier. Bush proceeded to spend the next 7+ years underperfoming vs. those heightened post-9/11 expectations, but he certainly seemed like a different politician no? At least for a while?

  12. As far as the 16th-26th thing - the thing that immediately pops to mind is that this has a curious alignment with "cusps" in astrology - all of the standard Western astrological signs are divided at dates that range between the 18th and the 23rd. So - maybe people born near the cusp of an astrological sign are more likely to exhibit a mix of traits, and thus less attractive candidates.

    Hey - you never said this explanation had to be plausible.

  13. Jon (Bernstein), the thing you assume in equating winners with nominees is that, as the races are mainly decided on fundamentals, nominees shouldn't be statistically different from winners. But that's exactly what Rauch et al dispute.

    Be that as it may, I am not for a moment convinced that all or even a significant part of what doomed McCain, Kerry, Dole, Mondale, and Humphrey was "staleness". It's a point that Bernstein makes here a lot, and it's true however I may have quibbled with the outlines: they only look like losers in hindsight.

  14. kth,

    I'm not so much assuming that general election are decided on fundamentals; I'm reporting that that's what people who study this stuff have found. Big difference!


    Thanks for stopping by. You are quite right that the "rule" will do fine this year, but of course it's had a terrible run recently for nominations, with Dole, McCain, Kerry, and Gore all not qualifying.

    Oh, and Newt and Roemer? They fall into a different rule -- they're Bateson Class candidates. Now that's one I'll believe in.

  15. One other thing, guys: if my math is correct, Rauch's theory works for 29 out of 38 major party candidates, going back to TR. What are the odds of flipping a fair coin and getting 29 or more heads? 0.08%.

    IOW, there's better than a 99% chance that Rauch's (admittedly crude) theory refers to something real in the world, that it is not just random noise.

    While its true that one can find any number of profiles that fit all 38 major party candidates, such as none had three eyes or two noses, Rauch's proposal is at least theoretically relevant in the real world; getting 29 out of 38 right is awfully impressive.

    I imagine that most social scientists would give their eyeteeth for a hypothesis that applied in 29 out of 38 studied cases. That sort of thing should be applauded, not derided.


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