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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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A Frame of Reference for the General Election

Hillary Clinton's concession speech on Saturday marked the end of an amazing primary nomination contest.

Now, for the general. What to expect?

Political scientists have shown that "macro conditions" - presidential job approval, the state of the economy, how many terms a party has been in office - are extremely influential determinants of election outcomes. This year, if we were to adopt a strict "macro perspective," we would conclude that the Republicans are going down, and it will not be pretty.

Of course, these models are retrospective in character. Predictions for the future are based entirely upon past results, usually dating back to at least the 1948 election. Thus, almost all of the observations upon which the models are built occurred prior to the information age.

This fact may be of relevance this cycle.

Nowadays, partisan actors are aware of these macro models. Even if they have never read the scholarly articles where the models are offered and tested - they get the gist. They know which factors matter and how they matter. What is more, they have instant access to key points of data, receiving "real time" updates on everything from Bush's job approval to the unemployment rate. This is just one consequence of the explosion of information technology.

It points to a question. What does widespread knowledge of these models imply? Since political actors know how macro forces structure and condition political outcomes - can they use that knowledge to gain leverage over those outcomes? Can they master the political winds just as sailors have mastered the seas?

Both parties seem to be trying. Both seem to have changed their typical electoral strategies in light of extensive knowledge of the macro environment. These changes might be sufficient to alter the expected outcome.

Let's consider each party in turn.

The Republican Party seems to understand that it faces a bear market. After all, it has nominated a bear market candidate. John McCain is not the first, second, or even third choice of most Republicans. However, they believe he has cultivated a stable image as an anti-Bush Republican. Whether this belief is accurate, we do not know for sure. What we do know is that there is a non-trivial probability that it is accurate. Therefore, we can conclude that nominating McCain was the safe choice for the party, given the macro environment and the party's goal of electoral victory.

I would highlight the uniqueness of this behavior. Contrast the Republicans this year to the Democrats in 1920 and 1968. In 1920, the Democrats ran behind the League of Nations and, by extension, Woodrow Wilson. They were shellacked at the ballot box. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson's vice-president won the nomination on the first ballot despite the fact that his boss's job approval rating stood at just 35%.

How could the Republican Party behave in a different manner? After all, the party's organization is nothing like a Wall Street firm. Ideally speaking, a firm is structured so that relevant information is efficiently provided to decision-makers who formulate strategies to achieve the firm's goal. Republicans do possess a shared goal - electoral victory - but their party is not organized for the sophisticated pursuit of that goal. Instead, the party organization is a federated hodge-podge full of obscure procedures that nobody has heard of. How did it make a decision like this?

We might conclude that it was just dumb luck. The party got lucky with McCain. I find that explanation insufficient - though luck might have played a role. I would point to how knowledgeable people in the party are nowadays. Republicans of all stripes - party leaders, party activists, and even average partisans - know a great deal about the position the party is in. Organizational inefficiency should not matter as much when people generally feel the same way.

My sense is that most Republicans intuited that they might well lose the upcoming election, and so were less inclined to take unnecessary chances. In other words, their extensive knowledge of the macro structure made them relatively risk averse. They would take a candidate who, as president, will give them a lower expected "partisan payoff" if it means a higher probability of that candidate winning. The Republicans also knew that, though they didn't much like McCain, he had a seemingly good image among independents, who are the voters they need in a year like this. All in all, the party exhibited a kind of grudging unanimity in both its aversion to risk and its assessment of the situation: "McCain is a safer, but less satisfying, bet for us; in an ominous time such as this, he is the best choice."

We can tell a similar story about the Democrats, though they are quite different from their Republican counterparts. In many respects, they remain a more heterogeneous group. They are also in a much different situation than the GOP, and so their aversion to risk seems to have been different.

In the last seventy-five years, there has been a method by which Democrats have won. Victorious Democrats have succeeded by making (whom we inefficiently refer to as) "working class whites" comfortable that the party was "on their side." Even Kennedy did this. That is why his primary victory in West Virginia was so important. Rarely have victorious Democrats won white voters outright. Instead, they split them with the Republicans. This has been a crucial component of Democratic victory.

This year, the Democrats nominated a candidate who seems less able to do this than his former opponent. Obama lost the white vote in most primaries, often by lopsided margins. In light of the history of the party, he seemed not to be the safer candidate.

As we all know, there were two factions in the Democratic electorate that were equally divided. The superdelegates had to break the tie. They sided with Obama. Why did they do this? Why not go with the safer bet?

My sense is that it occurred for many reasons, including the following two. First, the party elite (and the intellectual class of the party, broadly defined) preferred Obama to Clinton. Either because of his appeal, or lingering Clinton fatigue, they wanted him over her. Second, thanks to easy access to relevant data, they believed they could afford the additional risk he might bring. Their knowledge of the macro environment made them more willing to take on a candidate with a possibly lower likelihood of victory because they expect a higher expected partisan payoff should he win. This is known as risk-accepting or risk-tolerating behavior; it is different from the GOP's orientation. The Democrats generally expect to win, so they are inclined to take a little electoral risk to get a candidate they really like.

So, both parties manifested signs of sophisticated thinking in pursuit of a goal - even though the manifestations were quite different. In both cases, information made a crucial difference. Party actors had up-to-date knowledge of relevant variables, and acted in light of that knowledge. The Republicans were aware of their dire straits and, accordingly, made a risk-averse choice. The Democrats were aware of how favored they are and made a risk-accepting choice. An important precondition of all this is the information age. It is simply easier for people of all classes to acquire information nowadays, and thus easier for them to make sophisticated choices like this.

Interestingly, while they are pursuing different goals in different manners, both parties are putting the same kind of stress on the electoral system. Republicans looked at the macro structure and determined that McCain might turn a probable defeat into a possible victory. Democrats looked at the same structure and determined that while Obama could probably not pull off an enormous win, he could still win in a year like this. Both candidates were thus selected with an eye to having the final result closer than the macro models predict. Both are testing the tensile strength of the macro structure of electoral conflict. Republicans picked a guy they don't like but who might pull the upset. Democrats (with the final say) are trading a possible landslide for their first choice.

What does this mean for November?

Ultimately, it comes down to whether human agency can affect processes that are largely governed by macro conditions. Presidential elections are one such process. We know they are governed in part by vague, impersonal forces. To what extent are they also governed by the actions of human beings? We have seen both parties try to influence this election. Both have positioned themselves in light of what they know. Will their positionings make a difference, or is the outcome already written in the stars?

That's a big question when you think about it - and it is one that we only have a weak understanding of. Personally, I have read but a handful of books that integrate structural forces with individual endeavor into a cohesive narrative of political change. Most works are either stories of personalities or stories of structures. Rarely does anybody look carefully at both.

So, I don't know what all this strategic positioning means for November. It could mean nothing. It could mean everything. We'll have to wait to see.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. The surprise is part of the fun!

-Jay Cost