One fallacy I often encounter during online discussions of presidential election politics is what I’ll tentatively term, “appeal to precedent.” It goes something like this: People who think of themselves as very savvy and knowledgeable about this subject will eye-roll and sigh at predictions of how, say, Jim Webb could topple Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, because some data point drawn from previous primary contests shows that she’s the unassailable front-runner.
Now, yes, it’s sometimes useful to refer back to previous cycles for insight into how future cycles might shake out, but there’s also an undercurrent of fatalism to these objections. “Hillary has a 70% favorability rating right now,” these interlocutors might shriek, “And no candidate with such high favorability ratings has ever failed to win the party’s nomination for president!”
One aspect of why this reasoning is fallacious: it’s contingent on a dreadfully small sample size. The “modern era” of presidential primaries is regarded as beginning in 1972, when a host of reforms changed the way nominees were selected to include more democratic participation. Therefore, a grand total of 11 cycles comprise the sample size which these nay-sayers insist is supposed to be so predictive of future election outcomes. (And that includes years in which primaries were uncontested, such as the 2012 Democratic presidential primary or the 2004 Republican presidential primary.)
Further, there’s little reason to believe that the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, for instance, bears any useful lessons for how the 2016 Democratic presidential primary might unfold. These two cycles will have occurred in vastly different social/economic/political contexts, with vastly different sets of variables at work — ranging from profound changes in media, to campaign finance, to US foreign policy. I mean, the list of massive differences between American life in 1988 and 2016 is just going to be endless.
So the sample size here is pathetically small. We’ve only had one cycle during which the post-Citizens United framework was tested, that being the 2012 GOP primaries. You might recall that Sheldon Adelson bought Newt Gingrich a victory in the South Carolina primary that year. Prior to Sheldon’s sordid coup, pundits constantly repeated the mantra that the winner of the South Carolina primary always dictates the winner of the GOP presidential nomination. You also might recall that Mitt Romney won the the GOP presidential nomination that year.
Just to hammer the point home: we have zero precedent for how a Democratic presidential primary might function in a post-Citizens United framework. We literally have no idea how it is going to play out, because there is no precedent to which we can refer. All the “dark money” sloshing around is going to make things FAR, FAR more unpredictable than fatalistic pundits now suppose. That’s what I think, anyway.
Then there’s the more intangible reason why these sighs and eye-rolls are unwarranted: politics in the United States changes at a break-neck speed. Think of biennial elections from the period of 2004 to 2014. In 2004, the country re-elected War President George W. Bush, likely one of the worst presidents in history. Two years later, they tired of the Iraq War, and tossed the GOP out of Congress. (In hindsight, that feat was all the more remarkable, given how strongly midterm electorates tend to structurally favor Republicans.)
Then two years later, a guy named Barack Hussein Obama was elected in a landslide. Two years after that, the GOP swept back into power in a manner not seen since 1938. Two years after that, Obama got re-elected in a very weird way — incumbent presidents don’t generally win by lesser margins than they received the first time. And we are still working through last week’s bizarre results.
You can’t predict what’s going to happen in the 2016 Iowa caucus, so stop pretending. People forget that Ron Paul — yes, kooky old Ron Paul — actually led the polls in Iowa shortly before the 2012 GOP caucus. He nearly won the Iowa caucus! Ron Paul! The man who pundits loathed so much that they could barely utter his name for years, and who was associated largely with hyper-committed internet trolls.
You didn’t predict Occupy Wall Street. You didn’t predict the 2008 financial crisis. You didn’t predict that Al Franken would be last week’s biggest Democratic winner, or that the Fox News personality-turned-GOP governor of Ohio would somehow win by 31 points, or that Ted Cruz would be the presidential front-runner. You don’t know squat. So stop making stupid predictions!