Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Chance

Nate Silver had some fun yesterday tweeting a challenge, "looking for professional writers/pundits/academics who are so sure Cain won't win the NOMINATION that they'll quit if he does." As it turns out, Silver himself gives Cain very little chance of Matt Glassman wrote in a peeved response, it seems that Silver gives Cain about a 1% or 2% shot at the nomination. I promise I'll get to Cain's chances farther down, but first two paragraphs of thumbsucking, which you're welcome to skip. And if you get to the end of his long post, some cool new advertising!

So part of this is just about how to write appropriate caveats. What do I think? I think it's tricky. My natural impulse is to constantly include all the proper caveats: unless there's information we don't know about. Given that this time follows previous patterns. Assuming that so-and-so is interested in re-election. If nothing else has changed.

And yet, I also know that people don't want to have to get through all of that every time. Should I force them to? It's not all that easy a call to make, it seems to me. So I try to balance it out...I try to remember to include a general disclaimer fairly often (in politics, anything is possible); I try to make assumptions explicit as often as I can without making the prose impenetrable to most casual readers. So, the other day I said that Newt is "never, ever, ever going to be president of the United States, and will almost certainly never again be allowed to have any real responsibility greater than hawking his endless output of books and movies." Too strong? Can I imagine a .0001% scenario in which he winds up in the Oval Office? Sure. But I'm comfortable with using absolutes to substitute for that.

So Cain's chances right now? What I've been saying for months is that there's a small group of plausible nominees -- trimmed now to just Mitt Romney and Rick Perry -- and that the combined odds of that group winning the nomination are safely over 90%, and probably fairly close (but not quite) 100%. To translate that from speculative, subjective but inappropriately mathematical language: if you put together basic qualifications an campaign accomplishments, only Romney and Perry are similar to any of the candidates who have won nominations or come close to winning nominations over the last 30 years -- and not only is it likely that the same patterns will hold in 2012 that held in previous contests, but there's nothing in particular about what's happening now that hints of radical change.

That is, every candidate who won or came close in previous cycles was from the group of party politicians with conventional credentials and policy positions within the mainstream of their party. Conventional credentials? Current or recent Senator or Governor or VP or VP nominee are the main ones, but I'd include significant generals and high-ranking exec branch officials too, as well as notable Members of the House. These aren't hard-and-fast rules, and around the edges there's plenty of room for uncertainty, but it's easy to see that Herman Cain is clearly outside of the normal group, and I'd put all the rest (Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich, Paul, Johnson, Hunstman) outside too -- remember, mainstream policy positions is part of it, although most of those have a better case than Cain.

Now, the next thing is to check and see whether this time is different. What I'd say there is that there's just no indication of that so far. Oh, Cain is polling fairly well, but that's not unusual; we've had candidates do so both in the past (Rudy Giuliani) and this year (Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rudy again) who didn't fit into the "conventional credentials & policy mainstream)" group, and what we've seen is that it's easy for their support to fizzle rapidly. Same, by the way, with plausible nominees -- as Howard Dean showed in '04. There's just no real reason to take early polling results, by themselves, seriously.

Now, good polling along with other indications of success would be something else entirely. But other than the good polling numbers, I can't think of anything Cain right now has going for him -- that is, any indication that the normal rules don't hold. He's not just doing badly in winning support from party actors; he appears to be striking out entirely, with basically zero high-profile endorsements, little success in recruiting a solid staff, and little fundraising success.

Beyond that...well, we've had gaffe-prone nominees, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but I'm pretty convinced that it's a real minus, nevertheless. The same with poor internal campaign management; John McCain and Bob Dole won despite that problem, but it's almost certainly a negative indicator. Then there's lack of effort in Iowa and New's hard to know what that translates into on caucus day, but it's another minus.

I guess what I'd say is that, sure, there's probably a small chance that Something Is Different This Time -- or that something really goofy happens within the normal way the game is played -- and someone other than Romney or Perry will win. Call that 2%, although that's just attaching numbers to assumptions. Then within that, what are the odds that it's Cain who would benefit? I don't know, but other than successfully moving up to the level of debate-attending also rans, I'm not convinced that he's made any other significant progress. That's not nothing; ten months ago Buddy Roemer was more likely than Herman Cain, and that's totally reversed by now. Last time I wrote about implausible nominees winning in April I said that Newt, Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman were the most likely of the implausibles; I think I'd now add Cain to that list, but that's about it. So maybe my view is that he has 20% of 2% of a chance, or something like that.

And yes: if things shake out completely differently than how I see them, that would certainly make me go back and question what I think I know about the process. Maybe I and other political scientists have had it wrong all along; maybe the world has changed (meaning either the Republican Party or the nomination process) in some way that we need to account for. Both of those, no doubt, are certainly possible. All I can say for now is that I don't see any sign of it in anything that's happened so far.

Oh, and do you want to know more about what political scientists know about the nomination process? Then the book you want to order right now is William G. Mayer and Jonathan Bernstein, eds., The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012. Available real soon! Bill has been putting together the definitive edited volume on presidential nominations for several cycles now, and he added me to the mix this time around -- and the new collection is excellent, if I do say so myself. I'm afraid this is probably not the last you'll hear about The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012 around here, but I'm pretty sure that all the cool kids will be pre-ordering (and I hear that all the hip profs will be using it in their spring classes next semester). More info to come.


  1. Mazel tov on the book! That's wonderful.

  2. All I can say for now is that I don't see any sign of it in anything that's happened so far.

    Just curious: what would be an example of a "sign" that we are witnessing something unprecedented?

  3. Women giving birth to cows is one. Something about the texture and consistency of lamb entrails. Also darkness at noon and comets, lots of comets.

  4. 30 years, okay, but how about 70 years. Think Mr. Wilkie? Why was the nomination process in 1940 more open to an outside candidate than the process in 2011? Good question for a test?

  5. Thanks!


    Well, if something on a presidential campaign scale like this was happening, it would be worth at least thinking about:

    I mean, I can see an argument for early Dean being something that conventional analysis might miss, or Ron Paul last time around...didn't turn out to be true (at least w/Paul; Dean is more complicated), but there's an argument to be made. None of that is happening with Cain.

  6. I guess I'm a pretty hip prof, and coincidentally the book orders for my Spring Voting and Elections course are due Friday ... hmmmm ....

  7. Two things are Very Different now. A large faction of the Republican Right explicitly rejecting science and conventional punditry, to the point that they report using _more_ energy in their daily lives just to show their rejection of global-warming theories. And a largely overlapping (but not exactly) group of Republicans who do now demonstrably prefer to give their primary votes at all levels to right-wing-talk-show host bombthrower types, than to urban-state Governor-types who have had to make centrist compromises over state budgets and such. Hard to quantify (though I'd start by tracking a combined Cain-Bachmann-Gingrigh-Palin polling number), and not clear that it favors any particular candidate at this point, yet I was around and paying attention to election cycles in '68 and '72, and of course the Reagan-GWH Bush cycles of '80 thru '88, these two factors did not exist at those times, yet they certainly do exist now.

  8. I think Nate's blog post about it demostrated fairly well that Herman Cain is an outlier from other non-traditional candidates. The point is that he is very much out polling what you would expect from the fundamentals, in a way no other candidate in his data set has.

    What might be different is the Tea Party itself. I don't think that the pundits have grasped it as a phenomenum. The pundits were in for a number of surprises in the 2010 primary season, after all, and this is the first presidential primary that involves the Tea Party.

    If the Tea Party voters continue to coalesce around Cain and continue to find both Romney and Perry anathema, that may be enough for Cain to turn his poll numbers into actual votes, regardless of the fundamentals.

  9. Jason: (and other PS faculty reading)

    Does teaching campaigns and elections in spring of an election year work?
    I've always done in in the fall. Get 'em lined up out the door, and we start every class with 20 minutes of "what's in the news today." Easiest, most fun, AND most educational class I teach.
    I tried it over the summer once, and it just didn't fly as well. Does it do well in presidential primary springs? (And, have you tried it in midterm springs?)

  10. >What might be different is the Tea Party itself. I don't think that the pundits have grasped it as a phenomenum.

    I'm no defender of pundits as a class; there's good evidence that they're wrong at least half the time. But it isn't just pundits who think Cain's chances are low, it's just about everyone with at least a passing knowledge of political history and political science. There's a long history of unconventional candidates experiencing surges in the polls that quickly evaporate, and there's no history of that sort of candidate coming even close to winning. (As Bill Harshaw pointed out, the last weird nominee was Wendell Willkie in 1940, which was long before reform.) We saw it just this year with Trump, and although Cain is a marginally more plausible contender, it's easy to get too caught up in these fluctuations while they're occurring.

    Steve Kornacki, while admitting some uncertainty, has done a great job of summing up the reasons why Cain is viewed as unlikely. It's a bit of an oversimplification to describe these reasons as "fundamentals": one of them is that Cain has already shown himself to be wobbly at staying on message, as evidenced by the recent abortion flap, or his praise for Alan Greenspan. Even "red meat" like his tax plan might not go over so well after being skewered by several bona fide conservatives, including his rival Michelle Bachmann. If Tea Partiers aren't souring on him already, it won't be long before many of them do.

    The idea that TPers will coalesce around Cain is especially problematic, since that would probably require them to collectively abandon Bachmann and Perry, both of whom still have considerable TP support that isn't likely to disappear (though it's unclear whether Bachmann will still be in the race by Iowa). Romney, meanwhile, has the establishment, non-TP field pretty much to himself. You didn't see this kind of fracturing within the TP during the 2010 primaries.

  11. Kylo, I think there was a handful of races where "the tea party" fractured in 2010 with 2 or even 3 candidates against an establishment one.
    Naturally, they ended like you would expect.
    I can't cite chapter and verse, but I seem to recall Paul facing a few of them, and I think the first round of he Hahn special out here in CA had a few.

  12. There's little question that Cain entered the race as a "business plan" candidate - his actions make perfect sense if viewed as making him more marketable as a motivational speaker and Fox commentator. To me the question is, what happens if he entered the race with no thought about actually getting the nomination, yet somehow maintains his "front-runner" status when the primaries and caucuses begin? Does he say "What the hell, I might as well start taking this seriously and try to win the presidency" or "My God, those yahoos just might elect me"? Kind of a Producers scenario - "I can boost my income by running even if I make it clear I'm not taking it seriously," then, all of the sudden, he's got a hit show on his hands and he's taking an oath on the Capitol steps.

  13. @Geoff, I'm not surprised that a former CEO would ride a campaign all the way to White House if that's what happens. I haven't seen CEOs as a humble bunch, and any who start a campaign have even less humility. So Cain will probably have to lose his lead by embarrassing himself, just as Trump did.

  14. "...there's nothing in particular about what's happening now that hints of radical change."



    I believe you, that you can't see it, but I'd say it's more that you're blinkered than that there is no hint of radical change.

    Mass populist movements, and 70 year record electoral blowouts at the local, state and federal levels pretty much would qualify as a "hint".

    I'm starting to get a whiff of fear over this Cain guy. The above type of blinkering and denials of Cain's status pretty much confirm some people are afraid of him. And as time goes by and his numbers hold... they're probably right to be afraid.

  15. The big question is "at what point should we trust the polling numbers over individuals' readings of the 'fundamentals'?" Since that's an empirical question, perhaps one of you PS folks could investigate and tell us how reliable polling numbers have been at this point in the electoral process.

    Thing is, if Cain's numbers stay up, eventually we'll need to admit that he is or at least may be a plausible nominee.

  16. Jon,

    Yes: high-profile endorsements are better predictors than polling numbers (or, IIRC, money).

    Again, the thing about Cain is that other than polling numbers (which are relatively good, but nothing special), he's doing well on *none* of the objective measures. Bad on money. Awful on endorsements. Plus little time campaigning in the early states, and little professional campaign organization. I'd say on the subjective stuff he's good on projecting a likable persona, but he's unusually gaffe-tastic and shows little mastery of public policy. And that's all before we get to conventional credentials, lack thereof.

    There's just no evidence at all that I can see supporting the "take the polling seriously" side of things, and lots of evidence on the other side.

  17. >I'm starting to get a whiff of fear over this Cain guy.

    Yeah, a candidate who says the unemployed are to blame for their unemployment will have the Dems quaking in their boots.

  18. Yeah, but the thing is, the "take the polling seriously" side of things is how this nomination battle will ultimately be decided. This ain't the D nomination, remember. There ain't no 20% super delegates in play, to be bought off via smoky backroom. Those polling numbers are all there is or ever will be. If they hold, get ready for President Cain, because there ain't nothing Obama will say that isn't already being said about him. Thus, the whiff of fear, even now.

    Establishment endorsements mean far less than normal, in the current populist uprising environment.

    I'm finding it interesting that Cain is now speaking openly about individual primaries, and establishing his targets in each. That's exactly what Carter did, 36 years ago. That remains the closest model for the Cain primary candidacy, imo. Which is probably fitting, because the closest general election model to this year would be 1980.

    Romney a perfect match for George H.W. Bush.

    Obama a perfect match for Carter.

    I just can't find a way to fully fit Cain into the Reagan slot, although obviously the Left will tag him as an ignorant doofus, completely unqualified for the position, as they did with Reagan. But we'd have to have some Congressional support for tax reform in the next few months, to give tax reform some energy, before Cain's reconstructive surgery would begin to take on some weight in our body politic and electoral system. Kemp-Roth and the Lloyd Bentsens of Congress gave supply side economics a sense of urgency, before RR came along. Who's gonna do that this time (and quick)?

  19. If the polling isn't as good as the money and endorsements on primary day I expect the polling companies will be pissed since they work hard to call the election correctly. At what point should we switch from looking at the "fundamentals" to watching the polling numbers?

  20. Jon,

    A couple of things. One is that Iowa is really hard to poll, because it's a caucus and turnout is so low. It's hard to poll for the effects of enthusiasm and organization.

    The other is that the candidates are just beginning now to do TV advertising. There's no guarantee that TV ads will move voters, but the conditions are certainly there for it.

    That's Iowa. For the rest, I wouldn't pay a whole lot of attention to polling until after Iowa. After all, we don't even know which candidates will contest South Carolina and Florida, let alone the states after that.

    I mean -- I'd pay attention to the polling in Iowa and New Hampshire now; I just wouldn't take it at face value.


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