Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Was Plain Blog Wrong on Pawlenty?

Glenn Greenwald called me out for saying (over at Plum Line) prior to the Ames debate that Tim Pawlenty was still a viable candidate, and then for noting his demise without referring back to my previous Pawlenty optimism. I'll talk about it a bit, because I think it's worth exploring a bit more about how I think about nomination politics. My apologies if this post is overly self-indulgent.

I plead: not guilty! I certainly make my share of mistakes, and I try to mention them myself when I do -- and I'm happy to have people remind me if I don't. But I'm going to defend my "buy Pawlenty" recommendation from a few weeks back. I obviously wasn't predicting that the Minnesota Meh would win (I said 1 in 7 chance in the post in question) -- just that he was still a plausible nominee, while the betting consensus on him was "toast." I'm comfortable with that one. Had he been the perceived winner of the Ames debate, or had he proven to have organizational strength in Iowa that translated into a better finish in the Straw Poll, he would I believe still be around today. Were those things very likely? Perhaps not. Were the odds of them better than the odds that were being offered at the time? In my view, yup.

To put it another way, or perhaps to better explain the context: way back in the fall I recommended "buying" DeMint, Barbour, and...Rick Perry. Obviously, I didn't think that all three would win, since at best only one could do so. What I thought about them then, and what I thought about Pawlenty really up until Saturday, was that they each had a much better chance than was perceived. I don't think I was really "wrong" about DeMint or Barbour and "right" about Perry; what I was either right or wrong about was my understanding of how the process works, and what was going on in general.

In general, I try to avoid absolute statements about the future, not because I'm being weaselly but because I think in most cases we live in a world of probabilities, at least as I see it. To step back a bit more...much of what I'm trying to do here is to match what's happening right now with what political scientists know about how the world of US politics works. So three things can go wrong: I can misunderstand what's happening now; I can misinterpret what political scientists know; or we (that is, political scientists) can get things wrong, which in turn can be because something hasn't been studied enough yet, or has been studied poorly, or because reality changed and the old studies no longer apply.

Anyway, I do think that I try to 'fess up when I get stuff wrong, but I don't at all think that I got Pawlenty wrong. He ran a serious race for the White House, and lost. In my view, given what was public, he was a plausible nominee right up to Ames. Could I have been wrong? Sure. But not based on what was public then, or how I understand the process. To say that Pawlenty is undervalued isn't to say that he's going to win. If it turns out that Michele Bachmann wins or comes close to the nomination, or if a Paul Ryan jumps in now and wins or comes close, or if someone (really) skips Iowa and wins and comes close, or if a New York City mayor wins or comes close to being nominated (note: who came close to winning can be tricky to judge)...then, yup, I'll have been wrong. But not on this one.


  1. I think Greenwald dislikes the "experts" because they keep telling him third parties are silly.

  2. Pawlenty got Bachmanned.

    He might have survived gettin' Pauled, but the 1/2 punch was a bit too much.

    That said, he would be a formidable candidate in this environment, in a general election. I said well over a year ago, after it became clear the Left was gonna get bombed in the Midwest in the 2010 election, that the R's should find a Midwest governor as their 2012 presidential candidate.

    The governor part sets off Obama's lack of experience and fecklessness in office, and we all know what's going on in the Midwest, so that's what the structural model spit out... a Pawlenty type. It still holds, I'm guessing, but there doesn't appear anybody able to fill that role from central casting.

    And after he got whacked by Paul and Bachmann, and with Romney and Perry ready to bigfoot around on him... he bailed. Personally, I think you could put Pawlenty, Perry, Romney and Huntsman into a sack, pull one out and wind up with the same presidency, so it probably doesn't matter. And one of those 4 was always gonna be the next president. So now it's one of just 3 (and soon, one of 2).

  3. Greenwald is very good when he sticks to the facts, but when he ventures beyond that into analysis he can be awfully self-righteous, self-assured, and unwilling to admit he's wrong.

  4. "So three things can go wrong: I can misunderstand what's happening now; I can misinterpret what political scientists know; or we (that is, political scientists) can get things wrong, which in turn can be because something hasn't been studied enough yet, or has been studied poorly, or because reality changed and the old studies no longer apply"

    Or... "reality" always exceeded and necessarily remains different from the subject of the old studies and of "political science."

  5. I read the Greenwald piece and I agree, you were overly self-indulgent.

  6. "So three things can go wrong: I can misunderstand what's happening now...."

    I think the above is what happened. Your mental model of what kind of candidate GOP voters would like is still stuck in 2008 and earlier mode. It was clear to me based on what happened in 2010 in states like Delaware and Nevada that the GOP electorate has gone all in on nutcases and that a generic pol like Pawlenty would go nowhere in the Presidential primaries. I think this will also turn out to be true about Romney and the nominee is highly likely to be a radical like Perry or Ryan.

  7. Ha. Why not admit you were wrong.

    Is there shame in such a thing?

  8. Ron E, what I've been trying to suggest - though I think the case remains very difficult to prove, would have to be proved in fact, not just in concept - is that the "Tea Party test," in the debt limit debacle, in Rick Perry's extremism, in the perception that one of our two major parties has gone "all in on nutcases," and simultaneously and equivalently in the perception of a broken system and a hopeless economy, a "broken politics" as Obama likes to say, would itself challenge the basis of any political science ("old studies") defined on the basis of a theoretically sane, un-broken, non-extreme, effectively the same today as yesterday, etc., American politics.

    We may not be at the Weimarization of American democracy, but may, by the difference between AAA and AA+ at least, be closer to it than we've been since the early '70s (as JB's own Watergate time capsule posts ought to remind us).

  9. In your Plum Line column, you said that Pawlenty could come back if he had a strong debate performance. But that column came after the debate in which Pawlenty looked very weak for pulling the punches on "Obamneycare". There was no reason *at that time* to think that Pawlenty would have a good debate performance, yet you thought that would bring him back.

    Even more damning (as Greenwald pointed out), you said it was "just silly" that others were claiming Pawlenty's campaign was done. Just a few weeks later, he conceded defeat. Yet you remain convinced that you were right and they were wrong.

    How can you still believe that he was a "very viable candidate" if he's gone just three weeks later? What evidence could possibly convince you that you were wrong?

  10. I always thought that Pawlenty was a good candidate, better than many people gave him credit for. But his campaign was doomed because his natural constituency was already supporting Romney… and they had little reason to drop that support in favor of an unknown governor of equal or lesser caliber.

  11. TG Chicago,

    That's a fair question. Basically, I think perceptions of debate performance are more or less random. Yes, it's certainly true that some pols are better at the presidential debate format and some are worse, but that tends to be discounted because of expectations...I think it was entirely possible that Pawlenty could have been perceived the winner of the Ames debate.

    I'm wrong if (1) it was implausible that Pawlenty could have won the Ames debate and/or done significantly better in the Straw Poll, or (2) he was done regardless of how well he did in the debate and at the Straw Poll. And I'm open to evidence or an argument for either, but I haven't seen any yet.

    One key point: that Pawlenty dropped out this early doesn't (necessarily) mean that he was less plausible than others who will stick around for a long time. That's not how the process works.

  12. Can I ask something tangentially related: Why is Rick Perry already being talked about as a top tier candidate -- for that matter, why do you, John, say he's the only contender besides Romney -- when none of the polls for the early states show it? Seriously, are there any real numbers to back this newly embraced wide assumption?

  13. Thank you for your response.

    Respectfully, I can't say I find it very persuasive. I mean, someone could say that Pawlenty is a "very viable" candidate today. They could explain that if the next debate site is destroyed by a meteorite, then suddenly Pawlenty is a top contender. That's true, but the scenario is highly unlikely.

    Given Pawlenty's lack of charisma and popular support and his poor performance at the first debate, I would say that a "win" at the second debate was... well, I guess more likely than a meteorite strike, but still quite unlikely.

    That's what those other pundits believed -- the pundits who were saying Pawlenty was toast in late July. And events played out essentially as those pundits predicted.

    If you are unwilling to say that you were wrong, would you at least be willing to admit that those "silly" pundits you derided in the Plum Line column were, shall we say, not wrong?

  14. Thanks for a good discussion.

    See, the thing is that I don't think there is really any such thing as charisma, and I think pretty much anyone who shows up can "win" a debate. I mean, Cain won one...the one I remember real well was was that Bruce Babbitt won a debate in fall 1988.

    As far as the other point, here's the question: if I said that he had a 1 in 7 chance of winning, and someone else said that he had no chance at all, who was right? Well, the fact that he didn't get it doesn't really speak to that, does it? We need more. In my view, anyone who buried Pawlenty back in July -- anyone who thought his chances were, say, below the 5% Intrade had -- was wrong. Of course, others may disagree!

  15. I'm not sure what you mean by not believing in charisma. But whatever it takes to win a debate, Pawlenty didn't have it.

    I understand the second paragraph from a mathematical standpoint, but to me that shows that you have created a system in which you cannot be proven wrong. I'd say that neatly underscores Greenwald's point about lack of accountability.

    What exactly is your definition of a "very viable" candidate? To me, when you've got a candidate who left the race 6 months before the first caucus, that alone pretty much proves that he was not very viable. If he was very viable, he would have the support (financial and political) to stay in the race. Isn't that what viability means in this context?

  16. JB:

    Greenwald is just pulling an old trick. Look at a raft of predictions, find some that are wrong, and use that to “prove” you are smart cause you weren’t the dummy who predicted______. Before he earns the write to declare you a dummy, I’d like to see him make his predictions about who will win first, second and third in IA and NH (or how the first week of regular NFL season will play out). I’d bet that he’ d miss a few there in which case you can write about how stupid and uninformed he is. Or you could be magnanimous and point out that predicting these things are hard because of all the variables involved both in politics and football. Just don’t take up as much wordage as him to prove a simple self-indulgent point.

    Also if he hates early political coverage maybe he could write about something else instead. From where I sit he's just shoveling more coal into the campaign coverage boiler by pointing out who is right and who is wrong.

  17. Here's what's odd about Greenwald's column: his overarching theme is that there are Many Scary Things happening in the world, and the obsession with political coverage gives politicians cover to do Many Bad Things. Fair enough.

    Taking Greenwald's point, the Republican race could be boiled down, three weeks ago, to: a Mormon, a bunch of weirdos, and Pawlenty. To the extent that the Mormon religion brings baggage Romney might not be able to overcome, and further - per Greenwald's own argument! - weirdos can do scary things in the White House, how could Pawlenty not be viable in a pre-Perry race?

    One wonders: did Greenwald think Pawlenty was toast three weeks ago? And thus, in a cycle skewing Republican, our only trustworthy-with-the-nuclear-button option was a Mormon, who might not be trustworthy within the party?

    Maybe that's why Greenwald exhorted us to pay more attention to all the bad things happening in the White House?

  18. TG Chicago: Of course he can be proven wrong. If he says something has a 1/7 chance of happening, then he should be right one seventh of the time. So all you need to do is find many different predictions and see if his rate of correctness matches up with the probabilities he gives.

    This is kind of tedious and annoying, (especially for sites like this which don't usually assign hard numbers to predictions) but it seems like the best you can reasonably get. Elections are a probabilistic game, if someone says that something will definitely happen, they are wrong.

  19. A person could be a plausible candidate on day 1 and not on day 3 if something happens on day 2 to change that. Since our judgments are based on our observations, we can call someone a plausible candidate on day 1 because we haven't yet observed a piece of information that we'll learn on day 2. Another thing that could happen on day 2 is that something could actually change: another candidate could enter, someone could say macaca, or someone could pick Palin to be their VP.

    So, in JB's defense, one could say that there was something that we hadn't observed about the race in between his predictions and the outcome. Or that any prediction about likelihoods is neither disproven nor proven by one outcome. Or that our models are wrong. Or that our models were right, but cannot be extended to 2012.

    Against JB, one could say that he misread the situation. I've seen, in the comments here, the charisma argument, the "GOP is nuts" argument, and variants on the above "defensive" points.

    I disagree with our esteemed host about charisma being only something that we once someone is the nominee, either because party media tell us or because of hindsight. That said, I still would have called Pawlenty plausible last week: Bill Richardson was pretty darn flat in 2007, but lasted until early 2008. Charisma helps, but is far from determinative. I also think there's something to the "GOP is just that conservative in 2012" argument, and that hurt Pawlenty, but didn't make him implausible.

    Pawlenty's path to the nomination always seemed to me to be everyone's second choice. Every Pawlenty story started with why the other candidates wouldn't win, and TPaw was just the last man standing, but one who was acceptable to the factions in the party. That's a plausible candidate. Not a likely one, but it's possible.

    So, where I'd differ is where TPaw's chances were. I'd say they were really low, like maybe 5%.

  20. On charisma, see here and here.


    My point is that what I said about Pawlenty that time was in fact a very weak claim: I said that if someone is offering 1 in 20 odds that he was worth a buy because I thought the true odds were more like 1 of 7.

    As far as showing I was wrong...I think there would be a couple of ways to do it. One would be to show that no one with similar objective criteria to Pawlenty had ever recovered from where he was in July to seriously contest the nomination. I think that's wrong; I'd say that McCain and Huck in 2008 were probably comparable, for example. But perhaps you can make that argument.

    Or, you could (as Matt suggested) total up all of my totes. I'm too lazy to do it, but I'm confident that anyone buying on my calls would be doing extremely well at this point, since to begin with she would have bought lots of Perry at well under 5 and Perry is right now at 38.IIRC, the only actual literal Intrade buy recommendations I made were Perry/Barbour/DeMint all at around 1 and 2, and then Pawlenty at 5, but I frequently have said that only X candidates were plausible nominees and that they were collectively very undervalued on Intrade. Depending on how you interpret all that, you might also be holding a fair amount of Romney at a small profit, and then you would hold a bunch of worthless Huck, and Barbour, and a few others, almost all purchased very cheap. And of course that Pawlenty at 5 (plus, again depending on how you interpret, some Pawlenty at a fair bit more).

    But on top of that, I've also made some much stronger claims (although some of them are hedged a little!), and I went ahead and listed several in the post above. If I got any of those, or anything like it, wrong, my intention certainly would be to be very up front about it.

    I'll say one other thing...well, two other things. One is that I did think that Greenwald's comment was a very cheap shot, especially in it's original tweet form in which he said that I "never mentioned" my original Pawlenty tout; in fact, I said (twice!) in the post he quoted that I had considered Pawlenty at plausible nominee. (He also basically took "no surprise" out of context; the "no surprise" was that he dropped out after Ames. I'd have thought that was clear from context, but perhaps not. Of course, prior to Ames I had only said he would remain viable if he produced good news. Had I been more bullish on Pawlenty than 1-in-7, I would have considered it a bit more of an obligation to discuss my pre-Ames posts. As it is, I didn't, and don't, think that I got anything wrong no this one, just that a longshot didn't pan out.

  21. I'm still not getting the critic's point on this. If Pawlenty had skinnied down his campaign expenditures, and stayed in the race for 6-8 months, would that have somehow satisfied arbitrary standards of viability, and suddenly Mr. Bernstein is "correct"?

    The guy bailed. He was and is viable, he just doesn't want to go through the rigors of those 6 months, betting the come. I don't blame him.

    The buzz is correct, most times. Romney's been running for president for a decade it seems, but his support is a mile wide and a centimeter deep, and subject to blow away at the first gust. He couldn't even defeat a weak and much reviled candidate in the 2008 primaries.

    Perry is a veteran campaigner, but he ain't seen nothin' yet as far as campaigning pressure, and the rest are really on no higher plane than Pawlenty as far as viability.

    The fundamentals set up well for Pawlenty, and still, but the facts on the ground work against him. And the biggest of those facts was Bachmann.


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