Bloggers vs. Conventional Wisdom

Over at MSNBC, Benjy Sarlin has identified 10 pieces of conventional wisdom about the presidential campaign that have turned out to be very wrong. It’s a useful tool to see how valuable the conventional wisdom is when compared to the wisdom of bloggers. Taking my own case, I think my record stands up a lot better than what was provided to you by our corporate media’s collective output.

The first piece of conventional wisdom was that the GOP nominee was likely be a governor. I should add “former governor” to this, because Jeb Bush was always considered a strong contender. The reasoning here was actually pretty solid. No one from the Senate seemed like a plausible nominee and Congress had become incredibly unpopular. In any case, governors tend to do better in presidential primaries than members of Congress regardless of the election cycle. It just helps to have executive experience. I don’t count this as bad analysis. I think it was good analysis, and the only thing that was missed was that there would be a hunger for a complete outsider. I can’t say that I contradicted this analysis, but I did note that it was asking the wrong question. Back in August 2014, I argued:

Simply put, the Republican primary voter holds a set of beliefs that are nowhere near close to being acceptable to enough states to win the Electoral College. In the past, they’ve fallen in line for candidates like Poppy, Dole, McCain and Romney, only to be disappointed in victory or devastated in defeat. It’s getting increasingly hard to convince them to be practical, especially when the watered-down version of conservatism hasn’t brought them the electoral or practical victories they seek. Why should they believe that Jeb Bush would do better than McCain or Romney did? Why would they support a candidate who promotes Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform?

Throughout recent history, the pragmatic streak within conservatism has won out in these presidential nominating contests, but only by rendering the “practical” candidate unelectable. The obvious answer is to get behind someone who can run less as a conservative than as a traditional Republican, but they are more inclined to test the idea of nominating a fire-breathing conservative who won’t trim their sails. Better to go down swinging than to unilaterally disarm by caving on principles within your own party.

In other words, early on I identified the problem the GOP Establishment would have selling an electable candidate, and that problem clearly implicated some of the governors people were hyping as strong candidates. Another thing that implicated them was their own dubious behavior:

It seems to be a bad idea to nominate someone under indictment or serious ethical clouds, as would be the case with Governors Rick Perry of Texas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, or Chris Christie of New Jersey.

So, I didn’t say that governors wouldn’t have an inherent advantage, but I did shoot down most of the actual governors who could have been considered likely nominees.

In that same August 2014 article, I addressed the second piece of conventional wisdom, which was that Senator Rand Paul would be a serious candidate. Here’s what I had to say on that:

It doesn’t matter if Christie’s polls have recovered somewhat or if Marco Rubio is dead in the water. None of that matters unless or until someone emerges who has a plan to change the Electoral College. That means winning some states that no Republican has won since 2004 or maybe even 1992. You’ll know such a candidate has arrived on the scene when you see them taking unorthodox positions and nonetheless getting showered with campaign cash donated by enthusiastic supporters. Rand Paul wants to be that guy, but he isn’t.

My point, which I expanded on in a July 2015 piece, was that Rand Paul couldn’t win either the nomination or the presidency unless he ran aggressively after Democratic and independent voters and got them to the polls.

He’ll never win if he doesn’t bring new voters into the process, but his real task is to catch on with voters who have been siding with the Democrats in recent years. He’ll need that crossover appeal to make up for some of his unorthodox positions which will lose him votes from the traditional Republican coalition.

My verdict was that he’d never pull it off and therefore wasn’t a serious threat.

The third piece of conventional wisdom was that the debates were a big problem for the GOP in 2012 and that it would help to have fewer of them and in more GOP-friendly forums. As soon as this idea cropped up, I shot it down.

If the Republicans are hoping to go through debate season without anyone ever puncturing their right-wing media fantasy bubble, these reforms are not going to be fully productive. And, in any case, if the candidates are cheering the death penalty and talking about the sanctity of marriage and how “severe” their conservatism is, and the wisdom of a self-deportation immigration policy then it won’t matter who the moderator happens to be.

It’s true that the Republicans had too many debates, but so did the Democrats. And it didn’t appear to hurt the Democrats at all. It made Obama a better debater.

It says something that the GOP wants to have a primary season without allowing anyone to watch or question what they are doing.

My point was that fewer debates wouldn’t make “legitimate rape” and the like go away. I think I’ve been vindicated in saying that it was the content of the rhetoric and not the format or frequency of debates that turned people away from the GOP.

The fourth piece of conventional wisdom was that Jeb Bush’s candidacy would keep Rubio out of the race. I shared the idea that Rubio would find it hard to fundraise if Jeb was also running, but I saw the bigger story as the insanity of Marco Rubio giving up his Senate seat to run for what looked like a long-shot bid for the vice-presidency. It’s not that I predicted that Rubio would run, it’s just that I thought it was bizarre that he was even considering it. Even as late as March, I didn’t think Rubio was willing to act stupidly enough to make a candidacy worth launching.

The fifth piece of conventional wisdom was that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker would be the perfect candidate for Iowa. Here, I’ll admit that I thought Walker would be more popular with the base, at least in the early part of the campaign. I knew he was severely lacking in charisma, but he was a fighter who had had some real successes battling liberals and progressive organizations. I’m still not sure why he didn’t get more credit for those accomplishments, so I admit to being wrong about this one, too. On the other hand, I was always highly skeptical that Walker would hold-up once the glare of the campaign exposed his lack of personality.

The sixth piece of conventional wisdom was that Super PACs would dominate the race. Not only did I never believe this. I never wrote about it one way or the other, except to note that money given to campaigns goes further in buying television advertising because of the discount campaigns get from the television stations.

The seventh piece of conventional wisdom was Donald Trump wouldn’t run for president. I didn’t believe he would run, either. It wasn’t that I thought he’d be unwilling to give up his television show. It was just a boy who cried wolf thing. He’d talked about running so many times before without following through on it that I thought it was just a way to get people to talk about him. But I was wrong, just like most everyone else.

The eighth piece of conventional wisdom was Trump wouldn’t do well because Republicans disliked him. However, as soon as he declared by calling Mexicans a bunch of rapists, I began saying that he’d do well. And every time he said something outrageous like that he didn’t like prisoners of war, I said that it would make him popular.

And this relates also to the remainder of the list. Basically, the conventional wisdom was that Trump’s incendiary remarks would hurt him at some point and that Jeb would benefit. At every point, I predicted otherwise.

The last piece on the list is that Trump would suffer after the terrorist attacks. I never predicted that either, although I did wonder about why he didn’t suffer in the piece I wrote just before this one.

On the whole, if you were relying on conventional wisdom to help you understand or predict this campaign, you would have done much better reading my stuff. But I think that the same is true for a bunch of other bloggers who also seem to have a better grip on what we’re dealing with with the modern Republican Party.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.