Candidate Book Sales Are for Suckers

Dave Weigel, who is an excellent reporter and (I’m pretty sure) just having some fun here, noted that potential Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has outsold Hillary Clinton in the campaign book sweepstakes. Weigel also supplied book sales results from other politicians and authors for context.

My advice: Ignore those book sales numbers!

Dismiss them, that is, as anything resembling tea leaves about 2016. You know this, right? There is absolutely no reason to believe that book sales are a useful predictor of future elections.

We are, by nature, curious about the future and eager to latch on to anything that promises to reveal its mysteries. So expect all sorts of political entrails to be carefully examined over the next two years. Polls, crowd sizes, fundraising, body language, campaign hires — we’ll hear about it all. And most of it will be humbug.

What isn’t humbug? For nominations, the best predictors tell us what party actors — politicians, activists, party officials, campaign and governing operatives, party-aligned interest groups and media — are thinking. Endorsements provide some clues. So, to some extent, does fundraising (at least from party sources) and the ability to attract talent to campaigns. But you need to know the parties and the environment to know exactly how much weight to assign various elements.

For general elections, the two early indicators to watch are the popularity of the incumbent president (not so great for Democrats right now) and the state of the economy (improving). Trouble is, we want to know the status of those things in August 2016, not August 2014.

Book sales don’t qualify — nor do early polls.

The only asterisk is that party actors often are as likely to be taken in by otherwise meaningless indicators as anyone else. So if some Republican donors believe that book sales matter, then maybe Carson will get a small, temporary boost — not that he is a viable nomination candidate in a party with many solid contenders. And if Democratic-aligned interest groups believe the early polls and jump on the Clinton bandwagon as a result, then those polls matter, even if they don’t predict anything about eventual voter behavior.

In any event, expect plenty of nonsense in the coming months. That’s just a consequence of a big, important story that currently offers very little that’s visible to reporters and pundits. Enjoy it — but don’t fall for it.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.