Wednesday, March 29, 2023

"Not ____________" candidates are always the product of projection, wishful thinking, and convergent systems

Catching up with my DeSantis thread puts me in the odd position of partiallyagreeing with Candace Owens.

Political analysts love meaningless historical precedents ("no governor running for president for second time who lost his first primary..."), but they are really bad at learning from history. Case in point...

First off, what do we mean by a "Not ____________" candidate? 

Frequently, a divisive candidate will manage a formidable lead early in the campaign. This is usually followed by interest converging on an alternative candidate or series of candidates. In the moment, the rise of these candidates seems impressive. They shoot up in the polls, everyone likes them (other than the front runner), and at first they appear to be perfect compromises with minimal baggage. The press embraces the new narrative, visibly relieved to be talking about horse races instead of issues and policy.Then, almost inevitably, the alternative candidate fades away.

This always catches the political establishment (including well-paid pundits) off guard, but it is not difficult to explain when you think about how the process works.

All non-incumbent primaries are at least partially Keynesian beauty contests -- voters are trying to balance their personal preference with the perceived general appeal of a candidate -- but you might call the search for alternative candidates extra Keynesian. The objective of these searches is to find someone to take out the front runner. The threshold for personal acceptability drops and the emphasis shifts to finding someone everyone else can live with.

You can kinda, sorta think of this as symmetry breaking where support will converge dramatically and almost randomly on an alternative, usually caused by little more than noise and novelty. From a distance, this noise amplification looks a lot like momentum and it's easy to assume that the voters have taken a close look at the new guy and like what they see.

Often it's just the opposite: people think they like the new guy only because they haven't taken a good look. Almost by definition, non-front runners are less well known. This allows people to fill in the blanks with whatever they'd like to see. When someone actually becomes a potential front runner, this effect goes away quickly.

Consider this passage from the NYT which we discussed here. [Emphasis added]

Should Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump face off in a primary, the poll suggested that support from Fox News could prove crucial: Mr. Trump held a 62 percent to 26 percent advantage over Mr. DeSantis among Fox News viewers, while the gap between the two Floridians was 16 points closer among Republicans who mainly receive their news from another source.

 The piece push hard for the unstoppable DeSantis narrative, so it's not surprising that it leaves out this bit of important context: Fox viewer are the segment of the GOP that have gotten the most coverage of the governor. 

Steve Contorno writing for the Tampa Bay Times

(from August of 2021):

The details of this staged news event were captured in four months of emails between Fox and DeSantis’ office, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a records request. The correspondences, which totaled 1,250 pages, lay bare how DeSantis has wielded the country’s largest conservative megaphone and show a striking effort by Fox to inflate the Republican’s profile.

From the week of the 2020 election through February [2021], the network asked DeSantis to appear on its airwaves 113 times, or nearly once a day. Sometimes, the requests came in bunches — four, five, even six emails in a matter of hours from producers who punctuated their overtures with flattery. (“The governor spoke wonderfully at CPAC,” one producer wrote in March.)

There are few surprises when DeSantis goes live with Fox. “Exclusive” events like Jan. 22 are carefully crafted with guidance from DeSantis’ team. Topics, talking points and even graphics are shared in advance.

Once, a Fox producer offered to let DeSantis pick the subject matter if he agreed to come on.

In other words, the Republican voters who have actually taken a good look at the governor are far more likely to prefer Trump.

 None of this is to say that DeSantis is destined to rapidly fade away. For one thing, I doubt we've ever had a front runner this erratic or self-destructive before. Simply holding onto the second place spot for the next twelve months might be good enough for the nomination. 

But however things turn out, the standard narrative of the rise of DeSantis is badly flawed, and the journalists pushing it need to learn their history.

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