Monday, January 23, 2012

Newt and the Nomination Process

I recommend excellent posts from both Seth Masket and Nate Sliver over the weekend asking whether a Newt Gingrich nomination would shake the scholarly understanding of presidential nominations. I agree with them (and with John Sides, who has an excellent overview post up today): it would.

We have to be careful with this. Silver goes to far when he says that if Newt continues with "a win in Florida, it would suggest that we had been weighing the evidence incorrectly all along." That's too strong. No political scientist argues that the party consensus candidate will win every single primary; indeed, I don't think there's really an argument out there that the party consensus candidate should win the nomination easily. And Mitt Romney, while certainly a solid leader by every measure of party actors that we have, isn't (as Seth points out) nearly as dominant by measures of party actor support as some previous frontrunners have been. So for Romney to have to struggle some is no big deal at all. Even if Florida turns out to be just like South Carolina (solid win for Newt, with Romney a solid second place) I would think that Romney will still be the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. The next month is on much more favorable turf for the Mittster, giving him -- and party actors who strongly prefer him over Gingrich -- plenty of time to retool and kill Newt's campaign off again by the time we get to Super Tuesday in early March.

I'll also point you to a good Hans Noel comment to John's post. Hans notes:
The trouble with “this time it’s different” is that, even if the basic mechanisms are the same, sometimes it’s different. In a probabilistic world, one case is just one case, and should be treated as such...If [party leaders] lose (and I don’t think they will), that’s not proof that they don’t generally control their nomination. It’s evidence that even though they have a lot of influence, sometimes they lose. I think we’d need several contests to go to a Gingrich (or to a Carter) before we’d conclude that everything had changed.
Hans is certainly right in general, but I think in this particular case I'd disagree. Newt Gingrich, from what we know, isn't really similar to a Carter 1976, Hart 1984, or Huckabee 2008. He's more like Hart 1988 or Giuliani 2008 -- someone who party actors, or at least one group of important party actors, strongly oppose. For Rick Santorum to beat Mitt Romney would be one thing; for Newt to do it would be a very strong signal that the way we understand these things -- certainly the way I understand these things -- is wrong.

Now, the question is whether our understanding would be wrong because it was always wrong -- party actors were never as important as we thought -- or because something has changed now about the process. I should add one more possibility: our understanding of the process is correct, but the party itself changed so much that standard measures of accounting for the influence of key party actors don't work any more.

For now, however, the best bet is still that Mitt Romney wins the nomination, and we'll look back and realize that he won it fairly easily -- and especially that we'll look back and agree that Newt Gingrich never had a realistic chance of being nominated. That's still my analysis for now, and probably will be almost regardless of what happens in Florida. I do want to be open to evidence that "this time is different," but so far at least I'm not really seeing any.


  1. Peter Beinart wrote something almost a year and a half ago that I think explains what we're seeing happen in the Republican Party right now.

    In some ways it answers a broader question than the one you're asking. But I think he nails it.

  2. The question is whether Mitt Romney is also someone whom party actors, or at least an important group of party actors, strongly oppose. I think you're right that the evidence for that isn't as strong as it is for Gingrich. But it is out there.

  3. I do want to be open to evidence that "this time is different," but so far at least I'm not really seeing any.
    Of course, you don't. You have already defined the event as inherently beyond your purview.

  4. Probably it is just a case of 'date Newt, marry Mitt.'

    But at what point might you start to think that GOP voters were really going off the reservation?

  5. As someone who prefers staying sane, I don't listen to any talk radio but the little bit that has trickled into the mainstream press I've seen has been favorable to Gingrich. I would assume you would incorporate those hosts as party actors.

  6. I'm focusing on this comment: "He's more like ... Giuliani 2008 -- someone who party actors, or at least one group of important party actors, strongly oppose."

    I was around then, I totally missed that part of the story. As I recall it, the conventional wisdom was that Giuliani was considered a conventionally attractive candidate who should be expected to do well, and the explanation when he didn't was that he just didn't connect somehow with voters.

    Just for the record, what important group of party actors was strongly opposed to Giuliani?

  7. My question is how would you feel if Gingrich somehow gets the nomination? My instinct is to agree with you on the analysis--I think it's unlikely Gingrich will win (especially since he isn't even reliable at staying on message and tends to end up burning his own bridges)--but if I'm wrong, and you're wrong, there would be something awesome about it. Not just because I'm a partisan Dem who'd love nothing more than to see the GOP nominate the absolute worst candidate to go against Obama (except for Palin, or Bachmann, or Cain....), but because it would be kind of like the people who go to NASCAR for the crashes. The sight of the absolute breakdown of the GOP nominating process would not be something worth missing. Do you agree? Or would you be upset that all your training and knowledge has turned out wrong, sort of like physicists and the supposed FTL neutrinos?

    1. Well, it's complicated. I mean, having been as public as anyone in dismissing Newt's chances, I obviously have a bit of pride on the line...and more than that, I would think that at least to some extent my credibility as a blogger is at stake, too. As a political scientist, however: hey, the data fall where they fall. It would create lots of interesting research. Maybe the old theory was always wrong; maybe it was correct then but the world changed and so it's wrong now; maybe it's still correct now and this would, as Hans suggests, be a fluke; maybe the theory is perfectly sound but I'm reading the implications for this cycle incorrectly. All interesting possibilities, and if it turned out that my expectations were totally wrong, then it would be interesting to find out why.

      But again, so far I'm not seeing anything at all that makes me question my previous understanding of the process.

    2. Mr. Bernstein:
      It is different this time. Or were you not paying attention in November of 2010? The GOP, for whatever reason, decided to throw away two gimme Senate seats in Nevada and Delaware. So basically, they pee'd away control of the Senate because Castle wasn't nutty enough and Nevada couldn't find a non-nutty person to run against Reid. The GOP opinion leaders(like that pedophile, drug addict whose first name is that of a Canadian rock band) have been busy driving the party ever farther right these past four years or so. The GOP establishment, whomever that is, obviously can't control the base as much as they once did.

    3. @Phil

      Ever heard of J.D. Hayworth, Chuck DeVore, Bob Vander Plaats, Pete Hoekstra, Vaughn Ward, Clint Didier, Rita Meyer, Bob McConell, Todd Tiahrt, Cecile Bledsoe, Cecilia Heil, Angela McGlowan, Karen Handel, or Brian Murphy? They were all endorsed by either Tea Party organizations or Sarah Palin for offices in 2010, and didn't make it out of the primaries. But somehow these failures got a lot less publicity than the successes like Angle, O'Donnell, Paul, and so on.

      So the TP's sabotaging of the nomination contests in 2010 met with mixed results at best. It wasn't some all-powerful force the GOP establishment couldn't stop. And a presidential contest by its very nature is far more difficult for insurgents to sabotage.

      For one thing, unlike a race for Congress or the governorship it isn't decided by just one primary or caucus, but by many ones in states across the nation, not all of which are friendly to the hard-right. Newt won in SC, and he could win in several other places. But it will be a challenge for him to collect the majority of the delegates, and that's not even considering the fact that he is far from universally supported on the right (remember his past position on mandates and global warming, after all) and has a tendency to step in it with these people if he's in the spotlight before long (remember "right-wing social engineering"?). All those considerations could sink him on their own even if you think the GOP establishment is irrelevant this time, and the right is some unstoppable force.

      P.S. Drug addict, sure, but pedophile? Where did you get that from? Even for someone as despicable as him, that's not a charge you should throw around lightly.

    4. What Kylopod said. Also, most of the weak TP candidates who won Senate primaries did it either in multicandidate fields where odd things happen all the time (which gets to the point of presidentials with their sequential system are different) or when there was a clear (current) abortion issue, as in DE and AK.

      And again: I think that there's every chance Jim DeMint would have been the nominee. Or a slightly less wacky Sarah Palin. But picking Newt wouldn't be at all like picking O'Donnell or Angle.

  8. I'd suggest a slightly more nuanced assessment of Florida, one dependent on what actually happens in the next few days.

    Of course it is true that party-elite-disfavored candidates can win a few contests here and there, but if the Republican Party elites really try to deliver a state like Florida (high-profile, deciding alone, not too idiosyncratic, and expensive) to Romney and they actually fail, then I do think that will tell us something interesting. Indeed, even if Romney goes on to win the nomination, I think a failure like that in Florida would be interesting (to sort of reverse the point about individual states and the overall contest not necessarily telling the same story).

    Conversely, if the Republican Party elites don't really try to deliver Florida to Romney, that might also tell us something interesting, even if not so much on the general theoretical question.

  9. I think the failure of the "party-actor" model is what the hell is a party-actor?

    FOX has turned this into a reality show. What do you expect?

  10. I do want to be open to evidence that "this time is different," but so far at least I'm not really seeing any.

    OK. But what about if, say, Newt wins Florida by 20% and gets all the free media that comes along with it. Wouldn't that truly change the landscape for the following month?

    In February, there are primaries/caucuses in NV, ME, CO, MN, MO, AZ, and MI. Romney will win NV, ME, and MI. But Newt would certainly have a shot at the other states, especially if he's coming off a huge win in FL.

    The bottom line is, the more this thing drags on, the less plausible Romney's "air of inevitability" looks. And without the air of inevitability, Mitt is just like any of the other candidates, mired in a battle to see who can most sincerely pander to the right-wing GOP base. I just don't think Mitt is a lock, in that case.

    It's always good to remember: Just because something has never happened before, doesn't mean it can't happen.

    1. I don't think Romney is running on inevitability. It's true that he's certainly trying to get a bandwagon going, and that will slow down now, but it's not as if that was the only reason to support him.

    2. In February, there are primaries/caucuses in NV, ME, CO, MN, MO, AZ, and MI. Romney will win NV, ME, and MI. But Newt would certainly have a shot at the other states, especially if he's coming off a huge win in FL.

      Why do you think it is a given that Romney wins Michigan? Just because his dad was Governor there? Mittens took to the NYT op-ed page to tell Michigan to go Cheney itself, remember.

  11. I'm rooting for Newt for two reasons: (1) Obama could crush him, (2) to prove the Plain Blogger wrong.

    Anyway, if part of the justification for folks supporting Romney is that he is "electable", doesn't a steady stream of losing elections start denting the prime reason for conservatives to "settle" on Romney?

    For years, the media has been telling conservatives that Romney is the guy who can beat Obama -- so whoever else they might prefer, Romney is the guy they need if they actually want to beat Obama. But doesn't losing actual elections start undercutting that message?

    If Romney starts looking like a loser, then they might as well go with Gingrich since he's the only guy left that can make a case as a small-gov't conservative that also believes in War.

  12. Perhaps part of the problem is that the "science" in political science is really not the same as the "science" in physics, much as the political practitioners may blanch at the comparison. When we say F=ma, we mean that this is true in 99.999%+ of relevant cases; when we say a strong economy favors an incumbent, we mean that's true at best, what, something like 70%-80% of the time? While that's a statistically significant conclusion, unlike F=ma, political 'science' is always impacted by the circumstances of a particular instance. So here's a theory about how the particulars of Gingrich v. Romney defy generalizations of the science:

    The grudge of the tea party, I mean aside from the cartoonish self-parody that has been mocked incessantly, is that the nation has devolved into little more than a collection of parasitic individuals writ large. The voters are parasites, and politicians are parasites indulging the voters' parasitism in exchange for political gain. This is true of all politicians, and particularly galling of so-called conservatives, which explains why Tea Partiers hold 'moderate' conservatives' feet to the fire.

    Well. Who started this vulture culture in DC; this destructive habit of leaving ideology aside in preference for favor-currying pragmatism? I know, its timeless. But in the modern era, the king has to be President Triangulator, Bill Clinton.

    Which brings us to Gingrich and Romney. Not only for Romneycare, though that is a certainly a classic illustration, but really it oozes from every pore of his being: Mitt Romney is a proud graduate of the Bill Clinton Institute for Advanced Triangulation Studies. To my knowledge no one can identify Romney's ideology; his many defenders, on this site and elsewhere, point to Romney's exceptional skill at triangulation as an independent-wooing trait that should help him in the general.

    And then you've got Gingrich. We smart types realize that net net, when Gingrich and Clinton went behind the woodshed, it was Gingrich who emerged with the black eye. But it probably doesn't seem that way to the Republican partisan faithful, who likely remember 1994 more than subsequent interactions, and think Gingrich gave Clinton the business the way those ideologues would have loved to, and the way they yet want to give a guy like Romney grief today.

    Long-winded way of saying that in political science, unlike physical science, particulars matter; perhaps Gingrich v. Romney calls to mind favorable, and animating, memories of Gingrich v. Clinton in the minds of partisan Republican primary voters.

    1. CSH -- at the risk of sounding pedantic, I'll object to the way you set out the comparison between the social sciences (including the social science end of political science) and the natural sciences. I think you're comparing laws at dramatically different levels of generality, and so of course they're not going to be parallel. It's apples and oranges -- as a departed campaigner might have said.

      1. Of COURSE particulars matter in physics! When you're calculating the force with which a pound of feathers and a pound of rocks hit their targets, you rely not only on particulars about their mass and acceleration. Even if we stipulate that they're really truly equal in mass, their divergent surface areas and levels of friction with the ground make a difference. If we dropped one from the second and the other from the third story, that'd matter, too.

      2. The general laws you can come up with in the social sciences are, definitely, not as satisfyingly stated in simple equations. But surely social scientists rely on basic generalizations in doing their work. E.g., "human beings tend to live in societies with many other human beings," "hbs tend to feel an investment in the success of at least some of their fellows," "hbs tend to plan for the future," "when reasoning about the future, hbs tend to give greater weight to salience (including terrifyingness) than to probability," &c. &c.

      The level of political science law you mention here is better analogized to, idk, some frequently observed but not fully explained adaptation that tends to pop up in creatures that live on the right, but not on the left, banks of rivers. Or something.

      Obviously, I'm not disputing your claim about the greater simplicity/knowability/predictability/whatever of sophisticated physical science done well vs. sophisticated social sciences done well; just that you'd overstated the case. And your point that in the social sciences even flukiness isn't that fluky is quite apt.

    2. @classicist - thanks for engaging the point. I agree with your premise; I think my comment did overreach on case-specificity in social vs. physical science. However, its the hyperbole that generates good responses back here; this is no exception.

      I'm also reflecting that it was too harsh to conclude that inherent unknowability is a weakness in the social sciences. I guess it is if your standard of reliability is the basic laws of physics. But if your interest is just to understand things, you do the best you can with what you have and leave it at that. Jonathan's comment above in the thread, that a Gingrich victory would be credibility-damaging, I guess that sort of depends: if Gingrich wins for reasons that have been obvious in the research for some time, that might be a problem, but if he wins for case-specific reasons, such as the fanciful scenario I painted above, then really the political scientist only needs to apologize for not being a seer, and perhaps wonder whether his peers over in Chemistry take so much flak over stuff that's inherently unknowable (and thus not really scientific).

    3. ".....but if he wins for case-specific reasons, such as the fanciful scenario I painted above, then really the political scientist only needs to apologize for not being a seer....."

      Well, I think what JB was getting at is that if Gingrich wins, no matter the reason, it poses a problem for the poli-sci modelers -- they'll be pressed (or will feel a professional obligation) to explain which data they failed to plug into their models, and/or to tweak the models to account for this new outcome (and thus make them better predictors of such outcomes in the future). They can't just say "hey, politics is complicated, we're not physicists" and leave it at that. The point of their discipline is to provide analyses that account for those complexities, that make sense -- i.e. make less fanciful -- as many cases as possible. A Gingrich victory, like a faster-than-light neutrino, would suggest that the state of the science is currently falling further short than they thought, and therefore that there's more work to be done.

    4. Jeff -- what do you think about the Hans Noel suggestion that flukes don't disprove rules? I'm inclined to agree with CSH that you can't just state that without explanation, and that the explanation is going to appeal to the murky complexities of blah blah blah; and I'm inclined to agree with you that his proffered thought wouldn't have enough weight to make the case fit the model JB et al. are using. But is there anything in between "candidates matter" and "lightning strike" that could be adaptable to current paradigms?

      (Also, er .... hi!)

    5. Oh! and @CSH again: I'm curious ... I've usually seen GHWBush's budget pragmatism highlighted as an animating factor for conservative grassroots (& other) purity/passion/?? pushes; what makes you put the weight instead on WJC's style? Just that the one compromise angered people and the other set were intended to placate? Or that there's maybe a Clinton parallel in the field, but no GHWB? (Sorry, Ron Paul, willingness to anger people over principle doesn't count. Arguably, it's the opposite to willingness to anger people over pragmatic decision-making.)

    6. Going a bit far afield, here's an example that may work: in two weeks SB XLVI will feature a rematch of the classic 4 years ago, famous for David Tyree's "helmet catch". Assuming you recall that game, if you're watching next Sunday, and the Giants are trailing by four with time running out, and Eli is scrambling around on third down, with a Tyree-esque journeyman receiver down the middle of the field, would you bet on the Giants to win the game, if you could, mid-play?

      Only if you're superstitious. If you're a scientist, you realize that the Tyree helmet catch is a peculiar artifact of circumstances that are unique to the unforgettable moment in SB 42; while those Giants live forever as SB champions because of that catch, we didn't learn anything about the "use helmet catch" model to win SBs, cause, while it worked that Sunday, such a strategy doesn't objectively exist.

      So somewhat contra Jeff's argument above, I'm not sure that a Gingrich victory over Romney would necessarily teach political scientists anything, or in fact reflect a failing in the field. The fact that the Tyree helmet catch worked doesn't deny the learning, over many instances, that such plays are not good bets; similarly a Gingrich win may only tell us something about Gingrich and Romney circa 2012, the participants and the moment in particular, and not necessarily any larger conclusions about the science.

      Then back to the classicist's last question, why is it WJC and not GHWB? Well, at the risk of a cheap copout, if its true that we're living through a peculiar moment that is more case-specific (Tyree catch) than a generalization, its certainly beyond my pay grade to conclude about the specificity of this case.

      Caveat thrown, while Bush's budget pragmatism is problematic (memorably the part about not reading his lips), what sets apart WJC triangulation is that, while GHWB played that card (as did RR), WJC was the first guy who wore triangulation like a crown. Politicians have been doing it for centuries, but ex-Machiavelli, it always comes with excuses. WJC seemed to do it with pride, which may be grating to the tea partiers...and Romney seems Clinton-like, an unrepentant triangulator.

      Or maybe not. Fun conversation though! Feels almost like the band got back together :).

    7. I'm not sure that a Gingrich victory over Romney would necessarily teach political scientists anything, or in fact reflect a failing in the field.

      Agreed. But you can bet it will earn them considerable ridicule from the media. People have a strange tendency to look back at election results as if they were inevitable all along. I see that a lot in analysis of the 2004 election, for example, where I'm constantly hearing bold explanations of "why Kerry lost" as if his failure to get 60,000 more votes in Ohio was some foregone conclusion guaranteed by the weaknesses of his campaign. And nobody ever seems to consider that bizarre and unlikely things happen from time to time. So if you say "there's very little chance that Gingrich will win the GOP nomination," and then he does, were you wrong? Or does it prove merely that Gingrich managed to beat the long odds?

    8. WJC was the first guy who wore triangulation like a crown.

      But this might be like saying that Romney claims with pride that he hasn't spent his career being a politician; the comeback being, "that's because you lost." Had he been better at it, he would have been in political office a lot longer. Likewise, Clinton triangulated (arguably) by necessity: when he had Dem congressional majorities he pursued normal Dem priorities: fiscal stimulus, automatic-weapons bans, universal health care. IIRC correctly, he complained about the constraints, e.g. the bond markets, that prevented him from doing more, and on NAFTA I believe he just plain thought the best policy happened to be one that cut across party lines. Triangulation emerged as a deliberate tactic only once he was stuck with GOP majorities in Congress, at which point it was either triangulate or achieve nothing.

      classicist (yes, hi, drop a line when you can), I think the middle ground is what I said, i.e. you go back and try to see if the model can be improved, and rely on CSH's "helmet catch" / flukiness explanation only if and when all else fails. Perhaps, for a (long?) while, the best you can do is add another epicycle here and there. Comets were once "fluky" events, but after Copernicus, Kepler and Halley, they made perfect sense. Maybe election modeling is still roughly where Copernicus found cosmology.

    9. To take up the general thrust of this mini-thread, I'd agree with Hans that flukes don't disprove rules.


      When your subject is presidential nominations, you're working with an insanely small number of cases. Especially once we recognize how much the rules changed in the 1970s (and, thus, restrict our sample further), and then realize that incumbents always win renomination, and then toss out nearly half of our small number of cases again. We're left with 11 cases (being generous with our application of the incumbent rule in 1976, 1988, and 2000.) If the 2012 contest is different, well, that's 8% of our data. Moreover, as Ray Wolfinger constantly told us, the plural of anecdote is data. If there's an argument that is as compelling as the invisible party argument and helps shed light on, oh, the nominations since 2004, that's something, particularly if that argument says that "something has changed."

      We're not there yet on 2012. Newt is still very, very possibly just like the 2000 McCain hiccup, or the 2004 Dean hiccup. And those hiccups are fairly easily explained using other theories than the invisible parties one, and that's fine, because they're about slightly different phenomena.

      However, I'm less sanguine than our esteemed host on what 2012 means for the invisible parties argument. And I'm not sure why the argument would be missing this phenomena. It's one thing to observe something, especially while it is happening. Sometimes, as in 2000, the explanation for why just jumps out at you: the party elite picked Bush in 2000, and it was pretty obvious. At other times, further research is needed. Sometimes, it just needs an "Aha!" moment in the shower; sometimes it needs more data. The example that comes to mind is Greenstein digging up more (and interesting) data on Eisenhower.

      Anyway, nice mini-thread.

  13. This is just a general comment -- my first here. I was at the 1964 Cow Palace GOP Convention that nominated Goldwater against the best efforts of the Party elites. I was a 16 year old page assigned to the Mass. delegation that went strongly with PA Gov. Scranton to stop Barry. Even as a young politico, I was amazed at seeing the fervor and zeal that the Goldwater delegates possessed. They didn't seem to give a hoot that Republicans would be blown off the map come November -- they didn't care about the consequences of taking rigid right-wing positions because "in their hearts they knew they were RIGHT."

    I think this is what is beginning to happen this year. The Tea Party and very conservative delegates will control every aspect of the Convention, pushing their most extreme agendas onto a more independent-leaning nationwide TV audience. It's looking a lot like 1964 all over again except that Gingrich is playing the reformed insider, now outsider, and true Conservatives are loving it -- and their chance to get rid of RINOs, moderates and the elite and effete snobs on Wall Street who get special tax breaks.

    As a re-energized Democrat talking up Obama and Kaine here in Virginia, I will be taking a GOP ballot in March when only Romney and Paul are listed. The Republicans under Gov. McDonnell tried to institute a "GOP Loyalty Oath" in order to vote but the public outcry ended that gambit. I would love to see Newt and Paul control the Convention. I'd watch non-stop.

    I hope Obama takes Clinton as his VP and Biden moves to State. FDR always changed his VPs and it won headlines and energized his base.


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