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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JVL: Rubio and the Occam's Razor Theory of 2016

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June 17, 2015
No. 176
By Jonathan V. Last

Let's stipulate to a few things concerning the Republican 2016 field:

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* It's historically big, and unusually high quality.

* There are at least five people running who are plausible nominees-that is, people who have more than a non-zero chance to actually be standing onstage in Cleveland at the end of the GOP convention. There might even be eight of them.

* There is likely to be a great deal of fluidity, and outside events are always both unpredictable and influential on the ultimate outcome.

* Which adds up to the conclusion that we really can't divine-even if we were to hedge by saying something like a "with a 75-percent confidence interval"-who will be the nominee.

Yet all of that said, we can develop some theories of the election which lead in different directions, some of which are more likely than others.

This week, let's look at the Occam's Razor theory of 2016. When it comes to politics, this means looking at the fundamentals of a race, wholly independent of outside considerations and unforeseen events. And in the Occam's Razor view, it's pretty clear that Marco Rubio would be the nominee.

Imagine if we were to strip away those stipulations from up top and instead describe the nomination fight thusly:

We have an open seat. There is a candidate who is the best political talent of his generation, a great orator and debater with world-beating instincts. He's from an important battleground state, which President Obama won twice, where he has shown the ability to win. He has a conservative base, is acceptable to the vast majority of the party, and also comes built-in with enough establishment support to guarantee that he'll have enough money to compete throughout the primaries.

If we defined the race in those terms, the obvious conclusion would be: Don't overthink this; the most talented guy from the important state who everybody likes and who has a bunch of money-that's the guy who wins.

But here's the thing about the Occam's Razor theory-even if it turns out to be right, the real world is more complicated than it looks on paper.

Apply Occam's Razor retrospectively to the 1992 Democratic nomination and you get an eerily similar picture: There was no incumbent Democrat and Bill Clinton was acknowledged, even then, as the great political talent of his generation. He came from a tough state for Dems, but was a proven vote-getter. He had establishment support and access to money. Of course he was going to be the nominee.

Except that he almost wasn't. Clinton '92 looks pre-ordained from where we sit today, but it you think back to the primaries, it was a close-run thing. None of the Democrats really contested Iowa because Tom Harkin was running. But even so, Clinton finished with less than 3 percent of the vote! Then he lost New Hampshire to Paul Tsongas by 9 points. Then he lost Maine to Jerry Brown. And South Dakota to Bob Kerrey.

Clinton didn't win a state until Super Tuesday. (In the first four states, he managed to finish in second only once, in New Hampshire.) And on Super Tuesday he only won one state, Georgia. Through the first week of March, Paul Tsongas was absolutely dominating the greatest political talent of the Baby Boom generation.

After that, things turned around for Clinton. He swept most of the south and won nearly the entire Midwest. But even after the race turned decisively toward him, Clinton had to slug it out with Governor Moonbeam all the way through June.

And the truth is, if Clinton hadn't finished second in New Hampshire, he very well might not have been the nominee. It was the second-place finish in New Hampshire that allowed him to remain a top tier candidate and keep fundraising and getting media coverage. If 12,000 voters in New Hampshire flip their votes, the course of American political life swerves in a different direction. There is no Clinton dynasty. No impeachment. Probably no Bush dynasty, either. The 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary is one of those hinges of history.

As it happens, I think 2016 resembles 1992 in some important ways and that Rubio is, as a political commodity, very much like Clinton. All else being equal, he's the obvious pick to win the nomination.

But even if this view is correct, all matters are rarely equal. And even when they are, life is more contingent than it looks in hindsight.


"Republicans who've waited impatiently for months to crown Texas governor George W. Bush as their presidential nominee in 2000 may be in for a surprise. They won't get quite the candidate they expect when Bush finally leaves Texas on June 12 to visit Iowa and New Hampshire. Technically, he's still "exploring" a presidential run, not officially starting one. But everyone knows that's a fiction. Barbara Bush, his mother, said at an Atlanta fund-raiser in May: "If he doesn't run, I'll kill him." What's likely to surprise Republicans -- and maybe the press, Democrats, and everyone else as well -- is the kind of presidential campaign he intends to run. For Bush, at least now, social policy is paramount, economic and foreign policy secondary. So his emphasis over the summer will be on why he's a "compassionate conservative" and what that means for the country if he's elected."


_Fred Barnes, "The Anointed One," from our June 14, 1999, issue.

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"Gotta say, I'm a little worried that in our supposedly impressive field of seasoned governors and senators, the candidate who's arguably been the most impressive on the stump thus far and the most effective in attacking Hillary Clinton is the amateur who's never held office and whose chances at the nomination are well south of one percent."

_Allahpundit, on Carly Fiorina's early attacks on Hillary Clinton, June 11, 2015


Just a quick coda to our discussion about 1992: If you went back to the night of the Iowa caucuses in 1992, when Bill Clinton finished fourth with 2.8 percent of the vote, and Jerry Brown finished dead last, with 1.6 percent, who would have thought that 23 years later both of those men would still be relevant in American politics?

Moving on: I mostly like National Journal's Ron Fournier. He calls it like he sees it and he doesn't think that all conservatives have horns-you can't ask for much more than that. But last week he wrote a piece criticizing Hillary Clinton's approach to the presidency, and it included the following passage:

A plurality of voters calls themselves moderate-38 percent, compared with 33 percent who identify as conservatives and just 26 percent who say they're liberal.

And yet, a large and growing number of self-identified independents consistently vote only Republican or Democratic. That explains Clinton's strategy: Technological advances will allow her team to pinpoint every possible backer and motivate them to vote with messages designed to stoke fear and hatred toward the GOP.

After all, that's exactly what Republicans plan to do to Clinton ...

This last line struck me because in Fournier's rush to declare a pox on both houses, he completely mischaracterizes the Republican campaign thus far. In fact, he has it exactly backwards: One of the most surprising features of the GOP race to date is that only one of the candidates has spent real energy attacking Hillary Clinton, while the rest have studiously ignored her.

And while it's possible that this dynamic will change eventually, I'm not so sure. Whoever the Republican nominee is, he'll have to draw contrasts with Clinton. But he doesn't need to stoke fear and hatred toward her to motivate Republican voters-Hillary will turn out the GOP base just by getting out of bed in the morning. Instead, I suspect the main thrust of the eventual nominee's message will be a focus on the future. A bridge to the 2020s, or some such.

Ron Fournier aside, Carly Fiorina's eagerness to define herself in contrast to Clinton is interesting, and may prove to be effective. Have a look at this three-minute (!) ad Fiorina has put out, called "Titles Are Not Accomplishments." In it, Fiorina cleverly avoids attacking Clinton's dishonesty. I say this is clever, because if you go by the polling, everyone who is open to being persuaded that Clinton is dishonest already knows it. People just don't seem to care much. They've accepted dishonesty as part of her package.

Instead, Fiorina's ad goes after one of Clinton's core strengths. Even though voters see Clinton as dishonest, they think, by a fair margin, that she's "effective at getting things done." Fiorina's ad-which relentlessly shows people struggling to name a single one of Clinton's accomplishments-takes dead aim at these numbers. The theory is that there's a disconnect between these voters' perceptions and reality. The way to hurt Clinton isn't to convince people that she's crooked-they already know that-but rather to explain to them that she hasn't actually "gotten things done."

Or at least that's the theory. It's an intriguing one.

I quote Allahpundit up above. But the second half of his analysis about Fiorina is this:

At some point in this race, Fiorina will be in double digits. That's not to say she'll be there for long or that she'll threaten anyone in the top tier, but she'll make more noise in this campaign than anyone thought she would initially.

I concur. Fiorina is, for the moment, unique in her willingness to attack Clinton. There's bound to be a market for this, no matter how it's done; and Fiorina is doing it smartly.


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