I wrote a column on 2012 myths and misconceptions back in June discussing conventional wisdom that doesn’t necessarily match up with reality. However, we just scratched the surface of the political myth-making business. Several more common memes deserve to be busted.
Myth: 2012 primary polls are legitimate news.
Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney have all led trial heats for the 2012 race for the GOP nomination that have been taken in 2009. None has topped 30 percent in any poll, and, generally, all three are within six points of each other. So what does this all mean?
Nothing. Perhaps even less than nothing.
Since I write about 2012 frequently, taking on this myth is akin to a pro-wrestler admitting that pro-wrestling is fixed. However, national 2012 primary heats (particularly those taken 1-3 years before the election) should be regarded with all the seriousness of an MSNBC online poll.
They may be fun, but they aren’t serious news. The polls are, to quote a classic TV line, “very interesting, but stupid.” There are two reasons these trial heats don’t matter.
First, we don’t know which candidates are running. The latest Rasmussen poll assumes candidacies by Palin, Huckabee, Romney, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS), and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). What if Palin, Gingrich, and Barbour, who got a combined 39 percent of the vote in the Rasmussen poll, decide not to run? Until we know who’s running, trial heats are pointless. It’s like asking someone to bet on who’s going to win the heavyweight boxing championship without knowing who’s fighting.
Second, national polling would be fine if there were a national primary, but there isn’t. The national poll numbers tells us nothing meaningful because we have a primary process where the votes of early states drastically change the race in future states. Rudy Giuliani continued to show strong national poll numbers long after his campaign effectively began its collapse.
The numbers in trial heats only reflect name recognition at a national level. For example, Huckabee and Romney were both nonentities in national polls taken throughout 2007, but emerged as two of the top contenders for the nomination based on Romney’s money and organization and Huckabee’s performance in Iowa.
National trial heats have no predictive power. Doing more polling in early primary states would have some merit, but those voters aren’t focused on the campaign yet, so the results will still be based solely on name recognition.
If there’s one value to a 2012 poll, it’s favorability numbers. The internet conversation is often dominated by people who loathe Huckabee, Palin, or Romney, and these loathers often assume all who don’t favor their own candidate of choice loathe him or her. In truth, polls show the loathers are in the minority. Any of these three would have an easier time uniting Republicans than did John McCain.
However, the headline news of a 2012 poll is a worthless piece of filler that serious people shouldn’t waste time on.
Myth: Mike Huckabee’s performance in the 2008 primary indicates a 2012 campaign will be a bust.
Joshua Lodell of the Detroit Examiner lays out this bodacious case:
In any potential battleground state, Huckabee did rather poorly; he finished 3rd in Michigan, and 4th in Florida. He was also unable to win South Carolina. This is important since any potential GOP candidate is going to have to win South Carolina, Florida and make Michigan competitive. If that is the case, nominating Huckabee at this point would seem to guarantee a second Obama term.
This narrative has three problems. First, it smacks of the Clinton campaign’s narrative during the primary campaign that Obama’s losses in seven of the eight largest states in America meant that he couldn’t win. In the fall, Obama carried seven of these states. Thus, it was proved that the primary is not the general election.
Secondly, it assumes what Huckabee did in 2008, he’ll do in 2012. Senator McCain’s 2000 campaign won only one state outside of the liberal northeast and his home state of Arizona — Michigan. In 2008, McCain lost Michigan, but won in many states in which he lost by wide margins in 2000, such as California and Missouri.
Third, it ignores the reality of the 2008 campaign, which came down to momentum, media, and money.
On the momentum front, McCain’s win in South Carolina was pivotal and without it, he would have dropped out. Conservatives were urged to vote for Romney to stop McCain. The media ruled the race a two-man battle with the choice being between McCain and Romney. That Huckabee even managed to win the states he did under these circumstances was a minor miracle.
A stronger argument could actually be made against Romney’s electability based on 2008 results. While Romney won eleven contests, eight of these were state caucuses where Huckabee and McCain didn’t have the money to create a ground organization to get voters to the polls. The three primaries Romney won were in states he had personal ties to, and only one of those was seriously contested — Michigan. This doesn’t appear to be a great return on a $100 million investment.
While you can make arguments against Huckabee’s electability, using 2008 primary results and pretending the vote occurred in a vacuum is practically pundit malpractice.
The myth of the five tickets
A popular political prediction system holds a candidate must get one of five tickets to remain in the race: finishing in the top three in Iowa or finishing in the top two in New Hampshire. If a candidate does that, it’s assumed that they’re a serious candidate who can go all the way.
But are they?
In 2008, Fred Thompson finished just ahead of John McCain in Iowa to take third place. This kept Thompson in the race until South Carolina. Based upon this myth, many conservatives opened their wallets, including me. Of course, Thompson dropped out after finishing third in South Carolina.
Recent history indicates, without winning in Iowa or New Hampshire, a candidate is done for.
Howard Baker (1980), Lamar Alexander (1996), Alan Keyes (2000), and Thompson (2008) all found their third place Iowa ticket led nowhere. Pat Robertson’s 1988 second place finish in Iowa led only to winning four caucus states due to strong organizational efforts. Steve Forbes (2000) finished second in Iowa and dropped out two states later.
I hate to agree with John Kreese in Karate Kid II, but in presidential politics, second (or third) place is no place. On the Republican side, every year since 1976, the Republican nominee has been the winner of either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.
This has been the case on the Democratic side, with the exception of 1992 when Senator Tom Harkin was a favorite son in Iowa, and Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) was a favorite son in neighboring New Hampshire despite the fact there was no way he could win a national campaign. This opened the door for Bill Clinton to win the presidency on the strength of finishing second in New Hampshire.
On the GOP side, the ultimate predictor of the last five open nominating contests hasn’t been Iowa and New Hampshire, but rather South Carolina, which has given decisive momentum to every GOP candidate since Reagan.
If there’s a rule by which one can divine how the presidential primary process will go, it could be said that the Republican nominee will win either Iowa or New Hampshire and go on to win South Carolina. The only natural exception to this rule is if a favorite son nullifies one of these three states as a presidential predictor.
There’s a reason Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina dominate, and it’s not magic. They vote first. Many states (and even Puerto Rico) have tried to preempt Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet the national recognition these first two contests generate has led to boycotts. Whether it was Puerto Rico in 1980, or Louisiana and Delaware in 1996, states that tried to muscle in on Iowa and New Hampshire earned only sideshow status.
Many larger states have tried to make these states less important by moving their primaries up in the calendar, with the result being front loading the primary calendar. Actually, they’ve only made the big three more important.
Momentum becomes huge when you have a 20-plus state Super Tuesday. With the GOP’s winner-take-all primary system in some cases, the pressure is especially strong to unite behind a nominee. Imagine what would have happened if, on Super Tuesday, instead of voting for McCain, Delaware, Illinois, and California had voted for Romney and Missouri and Oklahoma had voted for Huckabee. The GOP nomination process would have essentially been on a collision course with the fantasy of political junkies and the nightmare of party leaders: a long slog through the primaries followed by a brokered convention.
The drive to unite the party and prepare for the general election led many to conclude that a bad nominee was better than a long divisive nominating process. As long as the GOP nominating process remains as it is, the drive to unite will make most states choose to “follow the leader” in order to avoid the specter of an intractable nomination battle.
It should be noted the RNC and DNC are both looking at the presidential election calendar to try and solve problems. In a less frontloaded process, it becomes possible for campaigns to last longer and overcome early primary losses. Ronald Reagan began the 1976 presidential campaign with six straight losses, but managed to come back to nearly take the nomination from Gerald Ford because the campaign was less compressed.
Successfully reforming the primary system is doubtful. Members of the RNC are parochial, which has hampered primary reform in the past. That is, unless the RNC concludes the system is so badly broken and detrimental to nearly every state that any change (other than a national primary) would be an improvement, I don’t see primary reform happening. Even if the RNC comes to an agreement, they’ll most likely need some cooperation from the DNC and state secretaries of state to make any plan successful, which is going to make this delicate process even more challenging.
One thing to remember is that historic presidential prediction models do not have to determine the future. When pundits cite myths like the “next in line” myth, they do so with the intention of dictating what your choice has to be. “Romney is next in line and will be the GOP nominee. Accept it.”
My purpose has been is to show what the current history is. Whether you decide to go with it or swim against it is entirely up to you.