Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Remember how we said journalists learned nothing from past not-____ candidates? Inevitable NYT Ramaswamy follow-up

Yesterday, we ran a post about why challenges to front-runners started out looking so good but almost inevitably faded away, going back to 2012 for its wealth of examples. Here was the close:

In each case pundits came up with a new set of none-too-believable reasons to explain the rise and fall, such as Cain's gimmicky flat tax/national sales tax proposal (despite the fact that neither idea had ever been a winner with voters in either party). While the explanations we were given weren't credible, they were consistent with the standard narratives, unlike the obvious answer.

Pressure to converge and constant feedback loops led to symmetry-breaking. A slight nudge (like announcing a silly tax plan) would cause an "I hear people are talking about _____" effect which would send a candidate shooting up, at which point voters would take a good look and decide he or she couldn't beat Romney and the support would evaporate. 

The obvious lessons here (and from 2016 and from 2020) are that the candidate who dominates the polls is likely to get the nomination and that the not-the-frontrunner candidates who rocket up in the polls almost always fizzle out, but somehow it seem like none of the journalists covering politics have made those connections.

 About the time I was hitting the schedule button on the post, the following op-ed appeared in the New York Times.

"Vivek Ramaswamy Is Very Annoying. It’s Why He’s Surging in the Polls."
Michelle Goldberg

The question is what Ramaswamy’s supporters see in this irksome figure. Some Republicans, clearly, appreciate the way he sucks up to Donald Trump, whom Ramaswamy has called “the best president of the 21st century.” But that doesn’t explain the roughly 10 percent of Republicans who tell pollsters they’re planning to vote for Ramaswamy instead of Trump. It can’t only be his shtick as Fox News’s “woke and cancel-culture guru,” as one anchor called him, since at this point even the Florida governor Ron DeSantis has learned that railing against wokeness is a losing message. Nor is Ramaswamy’s appeal tailored to the downwardly mobile Trump voters who appreciated the former president’s pledges to protect their entitlements, since Ramaswamy’s promise to “dismantle Lyndon Johnson’s failed ‘Great Society’” makes Paul Ryan look like a social democrat.


Before we get into the main topic, a couple of side points: 

First, there is no evidence that "railing against wokeness is a losing message" with GOP primary voters. When DeSatis was mainly known for anti-woke, anti-immigrant, anti-vaxx rhetoric, he rose to over 40% in the polls. He has steadily fallen since then, but only after focus shifted to attacks on or from Trump and on DeSantis's political ineptness;

Second, even wildly unpopular positions can easily cause small bounces if you start low enough, and we are talking about very small numbers. Ramaswamy's "surge" over the past two weeks took him from 7% to 10%. Part, probably most, of that was caused by ridiculous levels of press coverage (the man is good copy and journalists love a horse race story), but putting that aside, it's easy to imagine one out of ten far right Republicans liking a plan to kill SS and Medicare even though a large majority of the party hates the idea.

But the bigger issue with the NYT piece is "what surge?"

Given feedback loops and the pressure to come together around someone, we expect to see candidates have small bumps just due to convergence and noise. Add to that the tremendous (and unmerited) levels of media attention Ramaswamy has gotten. A heavily promoted candidate going from 7% to 10% is not a phenomena that needs to be discussed an explained.

Particularly if even that small bump didn't actually happen... (but we'll get to that next time).

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