Monday, February 15, 2010

Fact: Good Candidates Beat Bad Candidates

A loyal reader responded to my last post on the logic of why people might blame Dems in November, and that brought up a point I had already thought of making.  And that's that it needs to be remembered that politics is largely a personality contest. 

People might rationalize their choice with issue-oriented rationales, and they probably believe those issues to be the salient ones; yet all the same, their choices are more governed by their personal likes and dislikes.  It's a fact that attractive candidates are more likely to beat less attractive candidates, particularly if they're charismatic.  And while many want to sift through the tea leaves of the Massachusetts special election to determine how things will play out in November, I definitely lean towards Steve Benen's explanation

Here's a brief recap:
In the forty days before the election, Brown held sixty-six campaign events, while Coakley held nineteen.  That's dumb.  Even dumber: Coakley pulled a Ned Lamont and went on vacation after the primary; assuming the general election to be an after-thought to winning the primary.  Brown was more likable and more charismatic than Coakley.  Coakley said stupid things, like that there "no terrorists in Afghanistan" and insulted a Red Sox legend; and then got distracted trying to correct these stupid things.  Coakley didn't have any decent op-research on Brown.  And overall, she ran a crappy campaign, while Brown campaigned well.

And that, to me, explains a lot more than to imagine that Massachusetts suddenly lost it's mind.  And look, Obama was more likable than McCain.  Bush more than Kerry or Gore (or so people thought).  Clinton more than Dole or Bush Sr.  Bush more than Dukakis.  Reagan over Mondale or Carter.  Carter over Ford.  Even Nixon was the "new Nixon," a more likable version of the old bastard; while his opponents sucked.

You get the point.  Show me the election in which the lousy candidate beats the better candidate and I'll stand correced, but it just doesn't happen. Like it or not, elections are personality contests.

Not Enough Data

And the main thing we need to avoid in all this is allowing too little data to "confirm" what we already imagined we were seeing.  Conservatives were looking for a political uprising against Obama which opinion polls don't reflect, while liberals were feeling down in the dumps because the Obama Era wasn't the kick ass time they thought it would be, and now they're getting some confirmation suggesting that perhaps conservatives are correct about the ground swell.

But you simply can't look at one or two elections to determine a movement, as there just aren't enough datapoints to lead to any conclusions.  Even general elections can be misinterpreted, as I believe the 1994 election was.  But at least they indicate some trend, even if we're not sure exactly how to read that trend at the time.  But a handful of elections is meaningless, because there are simply too many variables.  That's why we use the hundreds of elections on general elections to see trends, while history ignores special election results.

And if special elections are important, I'd say the more important one was the New York special election in which the Dem took a Republican seat against the Tea Party candidate.  In that case, the Tea Partier had the momentum, lots of cash, and the Dem wasn't particularly great; yet the seat went Dem.  But if you showed me pictures of Brown and Coakley and told me that Brown is out campaigning while Coakley is twiddling her thumbs, screwing up, and (gulp!) vacationing; I'd tell you that Brown would win, regardless of trend or party. 

So maybe Brown's victory is an indicator of things to come in November, but polls certainly don't reflect that at all.  While I'd feel better if Dems were doing better than they were, they're still doing better than Republicans.  And that means a lot more than one election in Massachusetts.  After all, polls are actually a better indicator of public opinion than elections are. 

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