Monday, August 19, 2013

Christie, Strategic Politicians, and the 2012 Cycle

John Sides makes the point today that Chris Christie's choice to pass on WH 2012 was consistent with the pretty good chance that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Strategic politicians, John says, consider the chances of winning in their decisions about running, and that
a strategic candidate might have looked at the landscape in 2011 and said, “You know what, I’ll have a better shot in 2016.”  And we aren’t suggesting that there aren’t idiosyncratic factors at work either.   It’s just to say that Christie’s decision was nicely in line with what political science says.
Put that way, I would have to agree. And yet.

If we can assume that Christie really did have a very good shot at the nomination...had he asked me at any point in 2011 whether he should run or not, I would definitely have said to go for it.

Yes, the economy plus a first-term president made any Republican a legitimate longshot. However, the economy was rocky enough in 2011 that a significant downturn was a very real possibility. And then there's the chance that Obama would have stumbled in some other way: a scandal, mismanagement of Afghanistan, or a Katrina-like disaster.

And then there's the other side of the coin. First of all, if Christie passes and Obama does tank, then Mitt Romney is president and he has a vice president (who is almost certainly not going to be Christie; it was going to be a conservative favorite), and who knows when the next open nomination opportunity might be?

Then there's the possibility that the economy keeps Obama afloat through 2012 and then really gets going after that, putting the Democrats in excellent position for 2016. John refers to Gary Jacobson on strategic politicians, and rightly so, but waiting for a shot at a House seat is a lot different from strategic choices for presidential elections -- there are just far fewer opportunities.

And that's also true on the nomination side. If it's really true that Republican party actors were ready to ditch Romney for Christie and he therefore had an excellent chance for the nomination, it may turn out to have been by far his best shot at that prize. And he could have known that in 2011, too. A significant feature of the 2012 cycle for Republicans is that thanks to Democratic landslides in 2006 and 2008 followed by a Republican landslide in 2010, there were a surprisingly small number of potential Republican candidates with conventional credentials in 2012 -- but an unusually large number who were on track to have those credentials for 2016. That's something that a strategic politician needed to take into account, too.

However...

I'm really not convinced that Christie had much of a chance at the nomination. John is reacting to an anecdote from the new Dan Balz book, that (as David Lauter puts it) "Republican notables, including Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan and some of the nation's wealthiest businessmen" were trying to get Christie to run. Okay, I haven't read Balz, but: meh. If Kissinger is one of the big names recruiting you...well, ever, but certainly in 2012, then you really don't have much. It's not at all clear that Nancy Reagan has had any significant independent clout within the GOP for some time now. As for those "wealthiest businessmen," if they aren't important players within the party, then I'm not sure why we should be so impressed by them. Even if they were ready to open their checkbooks.

What I actually think Christie shows is, in part, how conventional credentials work. Christie gets elected in 2009; unless he's ready and willing to run right out of the box, he's getting a very late start. Was it possible? Maybe. But surely it wasn't for those elected in 2010. By the time they could have got started, too many people had made too many commitments. And it's very possible that was the case for the class of '09, too.

But if he really had an inside track to the nomination...I'm not even sure I would have advised against going for the 1984, 1972, and 1964 nominations for out-party prospective candidates. I definitely would not have advised Christie against a run on the basis that Obama was a small, but solid, favorite.

21 comments:

  1. What I take from this is if your shot comes, you might as well take it, because there's no guarantee you'll get another one. It kind of reminds me of Mario Cuomo. I rather imagine that the ambitious, strategic part of his brain wishes he could have his 1992 decision back.

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  2. These are all good points but I wonder how they square with the story that Clinton was planing on running in 88' but then decided against it right before his announcement. That probably wasn't an error, but is the difference between 88 and 12 just that the GOP was much for favored in 88?

    Obviously it could also be the case that The Big Dog just made the whole thing up.

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  3. This post makes an excellent point. There are 100 Senators and 50 Governors in the US, but each person is only going to see a total of 10-15 Presidents in their entire lifetime. Very, very few people get to be President, and less than twice that number get to be nominees. And I'm not convinced that there is a substantial penalty paid by politicians who go for it all, fall short, and try again later. There are examples of politicians who were on a losing ticket and later succeeded in winning the nomination (FDR, Nixon, Dole), and others who fell short of winning the nomination but won it later on (Reagan, Bush 41, Gore). If Christie had run in 2012 and lost either in January or November, why couldn't he go back to NJ, win re-election in 2013, and then try again in 2016?

    Barack Obama is the best example of a politician not waiting for the perfect time to run, but rather seizing the first opportunity that arose. Using the Christie 2012 logic, Obama could have waited as long as needed to make his White House bid without taking on the unbeatable Hillary Clinton. Obama could hold on to his Senate seat forever and still have conventional credentials when he threw his hat into the ring down the line. But he opted to run as soon as possible, not letting "perfect" be the enemy of "good."

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    1. They say that because of NJ's super-strict campaign finance laws CC wouldn't be able to raise money for a Presidential run from his natural donor base of financial corporations and executives without resigning as Governor of NJ. Even without that wrinkle, running for President presumably requires checking out of your day job (both devoting less time and attention, and staking out positions on national affairs that are sure to be unpopular in NJ) to a degree that would have made it, in fact, very difficult for CC to go back to being Governor. (Cf. Romney, Mitt.) By all accounts, he loves his current job, is very good at it, and wants to keep doing it as long as possible. I'd be very surprised if jumped in all the way this time around, either.

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    2. That's fair enough. If he doesn't want to be president -- and *really* want to be president -- then he shouldn't run. It's a huge commitment to even run, and no matter how likely it looks it's never really better than 50/50 for anyone, and certainly not someone who isn't sitting VP.

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  4. One thing you don't discuss is whether running in 2012, even if Christie thought he had little chance to win, would have positioned him better in 2016. The last three presidents all won their first time out, but on the other hand, running in 2008 certainly helped Romney in 2012.

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    1. That's fair enough, although Romney had farther to go than most.

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  5. It seems to be common practice to ignore nebulous issues such as "political climate" in scholarly discussions, but I can't overlook how strident the Tea Party bent was in 2011. That seemed to dissuade several prominent names (Christie, Daniels, Barbour, maybe even Huckabee.) They were wise, in some ways, because the early polls were brutal to non-TP-aligned candidates.

    Even though the party eventually chose a non-TP nominee like Romney, it affected the primaries so much that the entire campaign was saturated with TP influence. I can see plenty of not-hard-core conservative Republicans saying "Yikes, I'm not going to survive that," so they just bowed out. (Yes, I liken the GOP primary to jumping into the school of piranhas.)

    My unschooled advice to Christie would have been to stay out and let the crazy die down. I can't believe I'm the first commenter to write that in this thread.

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  6. You quote Sides:

    a strategic candidate might have looked at the landscape in 2011 and said, “You know what, I’ll have a better shot in 2016.”

    I don't know why a "strategic candidate" would have said that. As you note, the economy was still shaky in 2011 and Obama just came off his 2010 mid-term shellacking. The poli sci fundamentals may have favored Obama, but that's just because the economy stayed afloat throughout 2012.

    And ultimately, it was not a blowout victory for the incumbent. If Christie ran, he may very well have done better than Romney.

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    1. Better than Romney, possibly, but if political science has anything to tell us about elections, it certainly reveals that candidate quality is not going to make up a four-point margin in the two-party vote...

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    2. One would think the appeal of chanting "shellacking" over and over again would have lost some appeal after the 2012 election...

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  7. There's very little downside to him running, from my perspective. He probably didn't have much of a chance, but running gets him in front of state party actors all over the country. If he really did have big donors waiting to give to him, he'd likely have enough to at least start building a campaign infrastructure for 2016.

    And it's not terribly unrealistic that he could get the nomination. Losing to Obama in 2012 wouldn't ruin him for 2016. I suppose many people think so, but I don't.

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    1. "Losing to Obama in 2012 wouldn't ruin him for 2016. I suppose many people think so, but I don't."

      I don't see how it's possible. Whatever the truth of the matter, Republicans overwhelmingly believe that 2012 was a race that by all accounts they should have won. They were predisposed to blame whoever lost to Obama for having run a lousy campaign.

      More broadly, and contrary to what Kal said before, I do think there is a substantial penalty for losing a general-election campaign. It's different than losing a bid for the nomination; many candidates in the modern era have done so and gone on to be nominated later. But no one since Nixon has been nominated a second time when the first attempt ended in defeat.

      The only general-election loser in the modern era I can think of who might have been a strong contender for the nomination later, had he chosen to run, is Al Gore (in no small part because he didn't really lose). Most of the other losing nominees (McCain, Kerry, Dole, Dukakis) earned the reputation that "they lost because they were bad candidates." It may not be a fair assessment, but it seems to be a stigma suffered by nominees in the modern era who lose. (It's occurred to me that Romney has entertained the thought of running again in 2016, but I doubt anyone else in the party is interested.) Running a general-election campaign has a great capacity for exposing a candidate's vulnerabilities, and when parties lose, their candidate becomes an easy scapegoat. The traits that make Christie seem like an attractive candidate now would have long been drained of their novelty if we all had to suffer through a general-election campaign of his that ended in defeat.

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    2. Yes, I agree completely with Kylopod.

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  8. "No one since Nixon has been nominated a second time when the first attempt ended in defeat."

    It should be noted that, since Nixon, there has been only a single example of an unsuccessful nominee running again for the presidency--Humphrey in 1972. In a way, of course, this proves Kylopod's point, but still one can argue that the thesis has yet to be properly tested.

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    1. Kerry apparently flirted with a second presidential run from 2005-2006. JB has made the point before that when considering who ran and who didn't, you have to look beyond who formally entered the race. Also, two recent nominees, McCain and Dole, were so old by the time they were nominated that it made a second run preemptively less likely.

      To the larger point of whether this thesis has been tested, I think the fact that general-election losers in the modern era have stayed out of later races is probably in part an implicit acknowledgment that the party is no longer interested in them. This isn't the only possible reason they'd decline to run, but I believe it's one of them.

      I'm not quite sure how and why the pre-reform era was different in this regard, but I get the sense that it was. It seems that the party always had this pool of candidates, and that it would include recent failed nominees, who would be less stigmatized by their defeat than would be the case today. Picking Dewey to run again in '48 made a lot of sense (and as everyone knows he came close to winning on the second try). Stevenson was more of a sacrificial lamb, but the party didn't seem to see much of a downside in choosing him a second time.

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  9. Well, using Nixon as a starting point: You have two nominees, Goldwater and McGovern, whose defeats were of such a magnitude that they probably could not have been considered plausible candidates again. Carter arguably belongs to that list, as well; at any rate, the public rejection of him is specific to the events of his presidency, and so do not tell much about the issue we are discussing. I would add Bush I to the list of those too old to run again--he was 68 when he left office (and, obviously, he had personal incentive to leave the stage, so that his sons could have their chance).

    So, that leaves five defeated nominees who could have been plausible candidates again: Humphrey, Ford, Gore, Kerry, and Romney. Only one did run again (it is technically premature to assume Romney will not run in 2016--or, for that matter, Gore or Kerry--but it is something we can safely take for granted). So, indisputably, the percentages are heavily in favor of your argument. Still, the numbers are so small that factors specific to the individuals can have disproportinate effect (Ford seemed perfectly happy to get out of politics and devote himself to making money; Gore may have been burned out by having the 2000 election stolen from him). Also, if counterfacuals are allowed, one can see that this is not a foreordained result. The obvious example: If Reagan had been the Republican nominee in 1976, and had lost to Carter as narrowly as Ford did, he would probably have had a good chance of becoming the nominee again in 1980.

    I must make clear that I am not actually disputing your argument. It does fit with my observations. We have become a nation with a very low tolerance of losers. I merely suggest that now is a little too early to see this as an iron rule of politics.

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    1. Ford was pretty openly hoping for a draft going into 1980; I think he thought Reagan would fall apart in the primaries and the party would then ask him to run. I think Gore or people close to him have intimated that 9/11 and the aftermath thereof turned him against a 2004 campaign. Even McGovern floated the idea of a joint campaign with Hubert Humphrey in the run-up to 1976...

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    2. I wasn't saying it was an Iron Law, just a hypothesis, and it can be a correct hypothesis without applying to every election. As I mentioned, I suspect Gore would have been a potentially strong candidate in 2004 and 2008, and theoretically could be again in 2016 (though I don't think he's interested). My point is that I believe there is a penalty for losing a general-election campaign, though it isn't necessarily a fatal one. The penalty may have even existed in pre-reform times, but it was probably weaker--I'm guessing because the nomination process was more behind the scenes and less subject to media sensationalism.

      The more specific point that inspired this discussion--Christie's viability after a hypothetical 2012 loss--I feel especially confident about. The GOP conventional wisdom has been that they should have won, not because Romney was an ideal candidate but because Obama was such an obvious failure as president that Genghis Khan could have defeated him. When that didn't happen, any Republican who happened to be the nominee must be a fatally flawed candidate if they couldn't beat the Kenyan Socialist.

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  10. Ulp. I forgot Dukakis. That is entirely a comment on my memory, not on him.

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