Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jennifer Rubin does not understand how elections work

In the United States, candidates typically win the presidency by earning a plurality of votes in the electoral college. This, in turn, generally depends on winning the popular vote in strategically crucial states. And for decades, political scientists and laymen alike have understood that winning at the state level depends on the good graces and open wallets of our campaign financiers.

None of this is even remotely controversial, or even particularly difficult to understand. So it's baffling that the Washington Post employs a chronically wrong columnist who even manages to prove herself chronically wrong about obvious things like how elections are won. Jennifer Rubin thinks that Sen. Jim Webb can win the presidency because of multiple dumb reasons that have nothing to do with the basic factors that allow one to win the Presidency, like "funding" and "polling". It is a testament to the absolute intellectual poverty of our pundits that any analysis ignoring these basic considerations could ever see the light of day.

Even on their own terms Rubin's points are almost unanimously wrong. She thinks Webb can win because:

1. He has no ties to a floundering administration. Rubin directly contradicts this in point nine, but that's beside the point. Any Democratic candidate will be tied to his Obama in the 2016 campaign whether the ties exist or not. And that is not, as Rubin assumes because she is a partisan hack rather than an actual analyst, necessarily a bad thing.

2. He is candid about the faults of the president. Every candidate running for President has voiced and will voice criticism about the President. To the extent that this is a coherent litmus test, it's one that every candidate will pass.

3. Dems love a veteran who turns dove. Rubin then goes on to list two veterans-turned-dove, Kerry and Hagel, who 1) lost and 2) was always presumed unelectable at the presidential level. There is no reason to take this as a compelling reason for Webb to run, since it has not in recent history proven an asset at the national level.

4. He is not overexposed. It's unclear what Rubin means by "overexposed" or why she thinks this is an asset. Are there candidates in recent history who lost because they were overexposed? Rubin would likely say Clinton, but Clinton lost to Obama because she was tactically outmaneuvered by people who, among other things, understood how primaries work. It's easy enough to argue that Clinton's exposure is also an asset insofar as it contributes to her name recognition and make her a familiar choice to voters. There's no reason to assume that Webb's relative obscurity will help him overcome that.

5. He is from a swing state he won before. This is as close as Rubin gets to a relevant point, but she's still incorrect. It is indeed important for any Democratic candidate to win Virginia, but there's no reason to suspect that Clinton is likely to lose it. Virginia is only purple insofar as its district-level representation fails to reflect the popular vote. At the state level, Virginia passed that threshold in 2006 and is now decisively blue, thanks to the growing Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia. There is no reason to suspect that a home-state advantage for Webb is likely to spell the difference between victory and defeat.

6. ...he can play the "maverick" and "outsider" role. Electoral history, in the US, is for the most part a long and glorious history of outsiders and mavericks challenging the establishment - and losing. Rubin and the Tea Party's anti-establishment fetish may have blinded them to the historical realities of that role, but there is no reason to simply assume that this is an asset.

7. He is smart and knowledgeable enough to challenge Hillary and has nothing to lose politically (he would never be her VP) by going full-throttle. This describes almost every candidate currently mulling a run against Clinton, from Biden to Warren to Sanders. If at this point you are so opposed to a Clinton presidency that you would be willing to run against her, and ambitious / credible enough to stand a chance in hell of winning, you are probably not likely to serve as her VP. More to the point, there is basically no reason to assume that being knowledgeable enough to challenge Clinton and ambitious enough to do so would actually make it more likely for anyone to win, since she will just outspend you and outpoll you in the end.

8. He opposed the Iraq war in 2002, a litmus test for the left. This is not a litmus test for the left. Democrats continue to vote for and support politicians who supported the Iraq war. For example John Kerry, who Rubin just finished praising as a credible candidate. Moreover, if Dems "love a veteran who turns dove," why would they hate an Iraq war supporter who regrets that vote? Finally, it's unclear if this is even as significant an issue as it was in 2008, when it arguably was (but probably wasn't) a decisive liability for Clinton.

9. Webb was there for liberals 87 percent of the time and always when it really mattered. Rubin then goes on to list several initiatives that Webb supported. Did Clinton oppose any of these? Are there any likely Democratic candidates who opposed any of them?

10. He is not a clueless millionaire. Why exactly does Rubin think this is an asset rather than a liability? Being a clueless millionaire typically means that you will have the kind of access and resources that are absolutely necessary for a credible national campaign. Most of our sitting politicians are clueless millionaires. It may make for an inspiring story when a 99%-er wins public office, but this is hardly a campaign model for success.

11. He is a prolific fiction author. ...

12. His vote on [issues] check the boxes on liberals' social issues. This is just a rephrase of 9, and dumb for the exact same reasons.