“Nothing Really Matters. Unless It Does”

Jason Zengerle’s Great Big Piece on HRC’s qualities as a presidential candidate seems to be an example of a journalist asking a lot of good questions to the right people and being driven half-crazy by the answers. After circling Clinton from the perspective of game-changey political journalism and the “fundamentals” of political science and Big Data and 2008 and the potential opposition and four or five other things I probably forgot by the time I finished reading his account, Zengerle kind of throws up his hands and says this:

It’s all enough to drive lay political junkies batshit. Just what, exactly, should they be obsessing about? The next news report that, say, Clinton once gave a paid speech to a waste-management firm that was hired by her family’s foundation to do relief work in Haiti while it simultaneously received capital from her son-in-law’s hedge fund, which also happens to employ the Haitian president’s niece as its in-house florist? Or the revised Q4 housing-starts report? What if, the same week that Clinton’s busted for hiring a custodial service that employs undocumented immigrants for her Brooklyn campaign headquarters, Obama announces an election-year income-tax holiday? What’s going to matter more in November 2016?

As much as a presidential race is a referendum on the candidates, it’s also a referendum on the dominant analytic style of the moment. The 2008 election was the campaign as soap opera, with an extraordinary cast of characters and the narrative suspense of the best television shows, scripted or reality. Four years later, it was Nate Silver’s world (all that mattered were the fundamentals), and the rest of us — Obama and Romney included — were just living in it, trying to parse which pollster’s numbers were skewed and whose models were best. At the beginning of this presidential election, the analytical innovations coming from the smartest academics offer a framework for following the race that is at once liberating and terrifying: Nothing really matters. Unless it does.

I empathize with Zengerle’s frustration, but a lot of this uncertainty is just a matter of degree. If the fundamentals lean heavily in one direction, then candidate quality matters a lot less. A gaffe, even one thought to be serious when it happens, can dissipate as a factor pretty quickly unless it reinforces or refutes some preconceived notion about the candidacy, and then, of course, you have to wonder how much the gaffe itself matters independently.

But there are some important things that are quite clear: “fundamentals” matter a lot less in nomination contests, for obvious reasons. So nomination candidacies are a lot more vulnerable to gaffes and attack ads and debates and other campaign “moments.” To that extent, HRC is pretty lucky by being so heavily favored for the nomination, and nobody in the GOP field can afford to look much beyond the next week.

The other thing that’s clear is that presidential general elections are probably the most fundamentals-dominated political events of them all. As a result, an awful lot of money gets wasted on campaign ads which cannot be dispensed with entirely (since a huge unilateral advantage in advertising would suddenly matter), and an awful lot of attention is paid to events that don’t change a lot of votes in elections largely determined by the relative strength of the two parties.

I’d say the odds are significantly higher that Republicans will nominate a presidential candidate that runs behind his (and yeah, it will be “he,” since Carly Fiorina is running as a sort of anti-HRC public utility for her party) party’s potential vote than that HRC will lose the nomination or turn out to be a “bad” general election candidate. Of course there is some doubt about this and nearly every other proposition about events involving human beings, particularly this far away from their consummation. But as I’ve said before, even if Democrats are disappointed or even shocked by how HRC handles this or that “moment”–and Zengerle’s piece is almost certainly over-influenced by very negative perceptions of how she’s handled the “email scandal”–she remains one of the most heavily vetted proto-candidates in American political history. Most of the mistakes she made in 2008–you know, letting Mark Penn be her top “strategist,” spending too much money and capital in Iowa, underestimating the importance of later Caucuses–are either avoidable or irrelevant this time around. And how she handled adversity in 2008 remains as relevant as ever.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.