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Campaign Conventional Wisdom Is Dead

Bloomberg asks if Bernie Sanders is finished, forgetting the industry-wide prediction errors of 2016

Bernie Sanders campaigns in WarnerBernie Sanders, US Presidential Election campaigning, New Hampshire, USA - 27 May 2019

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Warner Bernie Sanders, US Presidential Election campaigning, New Hampshire, USA - 27 May 2019

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Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein just published a new piece called, “Is Bernie Finished?” Citing Iowa poll numbers that show poor Sanders “essentially in a three person race for second” (he actually is in second, but whatever), its premise is that Bernie now rests “at the fringes of plausibility.” Worse, he could “fail to reach the delegate threshold” in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.

Citing poll wizard Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Bernstein paints a dire picture:

“While Sanders is faring somewhat better nationally, that’s mainly because almost all the other candidates remain unknown to voters. As Nate Silver points out, only 8% of Democrats say they’re definitely supporting Sanders…”

This is absurd, and the absurdity isn’t confined to coverage of Bernie Sanders. It’s early, and stupid, to be making pronouncements about any candidate’s viability.

It was silly back in December when a spate of pundits suddenly decided to run “worries abound” stories about Elizabeth Warren whose campaign months later is doing, surprise surprise, just fine.

It was absurd for New York magazine to run “Joe Biden May Be Less Electable Than He Looks” stories in April as he jumped to a big lead in the polls.

And it was ridiculous for the Washington Post to run four different stories in the span of a few winter days earlier this year about Sanders being a “one-hit wonder” whose moment had “come… and gone” and who was “no big deal the second time around.”

These stories are not based on anything. They’re space-filling guesses usually grounded in some grumbling personal complaint the outlet or pundit in question has about whatever politician they’re trashing.

It’s an annoying and condescending kind of campaign reportage. What makes it particularly ridiculous is that a lot of the people doing it were part of an epic face plant on the horse race front four years ago.

The across-the-board failed prognostications of last election season were a thing to behold. They constituted one of the larger industry-wide failures in a journalism business that has seen a few of them since the Iraq fiasco. Literally every major news outlet called the 2016 election wrong.

The most inexcusable mistakes involved the complete dismissal of Donald Trump’s chances at the nomination at a time when he was either leading the Republican field or in clear contention.

This is similar to what’s going on now with Sanders, who is sitting firmly in second place nationally, at about 17%, as Bloomberg is wondering if he’s “finished.” But what happened with Trump in 2016 was even more bizarre.

Bernstein should know. Four summers ago, when Trump was surging, he penned a piece under a headline, “No, Trump can’t win.” He meant the nomination, insisting (emphasis mine):

Everything we know about presidential nominations screams that Donald Trump has no chance of winning the Republicans’ nod.

Nate Silver, too, placed Trump’s chances of winning the nomination (the nomination, not the general!) at “2 percent.” This was under the headline, “Donald Trump’s Six Stages of Doom.”

FiveThirtyEight wrote multiple articles in 2015 insisting it was a near-mathematical impossibility for Trump to be the nominee. They claimed Trump would play “in the NBA Finals” or cameo in another Home Alone movie with Macaulay Culkin (they really wrote that) before winning the nomination.

Countless pundits made the same mistake. Dana Milbank in the Washington Post wrote:

“I’m so certain Trump won’t win the nomination that I’ll eat my words if he does. Literally: The day Trump clinches the nomination, I will eat the page on which this column is printed in Sunday’s Post.”

To Milbank’s credit, he actually ended up eating that paper.

In the New York Times, Nate Cohn said Trump has “just about no shot” of winning the nomination, adding — in an observation that was an odious subtext to a lot of these wrongly certain predictions — that it is “the party elites who traditionally decide nomination contests.”

Silver four years ago correctly noted that “fringe or factional” candidates like Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann tended to fall back to the pack under “heightened scrutiny.”

This did actually happen in that race. Trump slipped in the polls and briefly lost his frontrunner status in the fall of 2015. But the beneficiary of his slide was another non-politician, Ben Carson.

Again, pundits were right that Trump on the surface was a preposterous bet to win the nomination, given that 57 percent of Republicans disapproved of him in the summer of 2015.

But he won anyway, not so much because Republican voters learned to love Trump, but because they couldn’t shake the belief that the other choices were worse. Voters were ready to try anything that was different. On the trail they frequently said things like, “Why not?” and “We have to try something.”

The huge, underreported story of 2016 was the utter failure of the Republican Party Brahmins to be competitive in their own primary. Big-dollar donors poured $150 million into the campaign of Jeb Bush, only to end up with three whole delegates. People simply would not respond to the usual cues.

The failure of all that cash, institutional muscle and media clout to reel voters back to any “traditional” Republican — to the latest Bush, McCain or Romney — was evidence of a massive crack in the political establishment.

Trump’s thin Electoral College win against Hillary Clinton was a similar story. One of the most amazing stats from Election Day was that around one in six of Trump’s voters in November 2016 actively disapproved of him.

This allowed him to enter the White House with a ridiculously low 38 percent approval rating.

What predictions can you possibly make in a political environment so saturated with ambivalence and pessimism that a person with a 38 percent approval rating can win the presidency? The answer should be none, or nothing obvious.

2016 was an indication that voters had traveled so far off the reservation that any choices they made going forward were likely to be hard to predict.

Pundits however didn’t go back and recalibrate after 2016. A common explanation for Trump’s rise was that he was a “black swan” event. As Vanity Fair noted, this was a concept developed by risk analyst Nassim Taleb to describe “incredibly rare, hard-to-predict events, like the 9/11 attacks.” Trump, it was argued, was someone whose uniqueness defied models, which meant the Great Pundit Whiff of 2016 deserved a mulligan.

But Taleb himself dismissed the idea of Trump as a “black swan” event. When asked why pundits got the last election so wrong, he had a hilarious answer:

“Basically the mainstream media is presumptuous club for people with 1) a lack of understanding of complex systems, 2) a fear of diverging from the norm, 3) zero independent thought.”

This is why people should be careful about any horse race pronouncements about any candidate going into 2020.

Taleb is right: the press is a club full of presumptuous conformists who regularly ignore data they don’t like or understand, and they don’t understand a lot — beginning with the recent decline in their own influence.

A lot of these “read-the-tea-leaves” pieces — whether about Warren, Sanders, Trump, Biden or anyone else — represent a yearning for the old days when a handful of op-ed writers really did have influence over who rose and fell in the polls.

Those days are long gone. Voters today not only ignore pundit pronouncements, they often seem motivated to vote just to spite them.

Editorialists don’t understand that when they write things like, “X candidate can’t win because elites won’t allow it,” that will tend to make people in the current environment vote for that person, not against him or her.

This is why Taleb makes a lot of sense when he says:

“The main surprise event is that the New York Times is now so impotent and weak that it can no longer control America. The Media is gone. Social media are much harder to fully control.”

Not only are news audiences sensitive to the fact that we suck even at our own degraded horse race form of guessing-game politics coverage, they see us as a conflicted part of the power structure whose opinions about candidate viability should probably be ignored on principle.

They realize we can make numbers say pretty much anything. They know if we wanted to, for instance, we could argue that centrist candidates are less electable, while the Bernies and Warrens of the world might be more so, as political economist Thomas Piketty recently did in a new study.

After the disaster of 2016, the 2020 election race represented an opportunity for the press to win back some credibility. The fastest way would have been to go back to the basics, just telling voters what candidates stand for, what their records are, etc.

Not only is this easier, it might result in people hating us less. But we refuse to do it. Sometimes it seems like we’re trying to be disliked.

 

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