Regression Toward the Mean
George L. Batten, Jr.
George. L. Batten Jr. is a Mathematics and Physics teacher at the Academe of the Oaks High School in Decatur, Georgia. He is a long-time subscriber to The St. Croix Review.
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Only once in my life, in 1989, have I been anything other than a lowly foot soldier in a political campaign. That year I was an adviser to a friend who ran against a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates. My friend was successful, and I retired from actively advising political candidates with a perfect record.
It has been awhile since I thought of that race, but a recent book review1 reminded me of that campaign. The review was of the book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.2 According to George Hawley, the author of the review, the three political scientists who authored the book, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, present “. . . the best, most dispassionate analysis of 2016 that I have seen.” The key sentence that sent me to Amazon to purchase the Kindle version of this book was the following: “If they have a thumb on the scale, promoting an ideological agenda, I haven’t discerned it.”
I am fascinated by some of the findings of the authors, a brief summary of which follows.
Economics played an ambiguous role in the election. Certainly Trump’s economic populism proved more popular than the free market economics of his primary opponents, but in the general election, the authors were unable to find any strong empirical relationship between support for Trump and economic insecurity.
It is highly unlikely that Russian interference in the election had anything to do with Trump’s victory. The authors conclude that the estimated $247,100 spent by the Russians on Twitter and the approximately $100,000 spent by a Russian troll farm on Facebook3 were insignificant when compared with the roughly $81 million spent by both campaigns on digital ads. And let us not forget that an online presence does not necessarily shift attitudes. I have friends on Facebook that occupy both sides of the aisle, so I see a good bit of sniping from left and right. What I have not seen is even one opinion change. It is not clear to me that money spent on Facebook or Twitter political advertising is money well spent.
Likewise, in Hawley’s words, “They also found no discernible evidence that hacked Democratic National Committee emails influenced Clinton’s favorability/unfavorability ratings.” In Chapter Eight, “What Happened?” the authors recognized that the content of the hacked emails did not influence voters; however, the use of the word “emails” in headlines did tend to remind the voters of the private email server she used while Secretary of State, and her culling of some 30,000 emails.
The summary for Chapter Eight indicates that differences of opinions about racial inequality, immigration, Muslims, etc., were already quite polarized prior to the election. The election campaign merely heightened the polarization. It is worth quoting the leading three sentences of their summary:
“After the election, Clinton acknowledged that her campaign ‘likely contributed to [2016’s] heightened racial consciousness.’ ‘As a result,’ she wrote, ‘some white voters may have decided I wasn’t on their side.’ This is a tidy summary of what happened.”
At this point I would like to return to the 1989 campaign I mentioned in the first paragraph, and with that race as a backdrop, recast the conclusions above in different terms.
The wisdom we received from party elders in 1989 indicated that some 35-40 percent of the voting population would vote for the Democratic candidate, regardless of the candidate, and some 35-40 percent of the voting population would vote for the Republican candidate, regardless of the candidate. Thus the election would be won or lost depending upon our ability to influence that undecided 20-30 percent of the voting population.
Given that the Democratic party in 1989 was a more or less liberal party, and that the Republican party in 1989 was a more or less conservative party, that 20-30 percent of undecided voters were, by definition, moderates. Take a majority of the moderates, and you win the race, assuming you do not do anything so radical as to alienate your baseline 35-40 percent. My candidate in 1989, despite his conservatism, came off as reasonable, logical, and in no way reactionary. He won the majority of the moderates.
Trump, however, managed to alienate a portion of his base.
The February 15, 2016, issue of National Review, the “Against Trump” issue, indicated that, should Trump become the nominee, he would not be able to count on that 35-40 percent base of Republican support. We will never know, of course, how many of the “Never Trumpers,” the conservative intellectuals, actually voted for Clinton, or for some third party candidate. My suspicion is that a fair number of them, in the privacy of the voting booth, pulled the lever for Trump. But it is a safe assumption that Trump began the general election campaign without that baseline 35-40 percent. In order to win, he would need a strong majority of the moderates.
Clinton, of course, had her intraparty problems as well. Her cornering of superdelegates, and her generally shabby treatment of Bernie Sanders, undoubtedly lost her a few votes. It is probably safe to assume that most of these votes went to third party candidates, and not to Trump. Even though she was in better shape with her base, she still needed the majority of the moderates.
It is my proposition that, among the undecided moderates, Trump appeared to be less radical than Clinton. Many voters saw Clinton as Obama’s third term, and the radicalism of the first two terms tainted her. I haven’t met anyone who actually paid for health insurance prior to 2010 who is happy with health insurance after 2010. Most of the people I know, Democrats and Republicans alike, recognize that the painfully slow recovery we experienced after Obama’s 2009 inauguration was due, in no small measure, to the economic policies adopted by his administration. And for many voters, his war on fossil fuels made no sense, and thus appeared to be a byproduct of a radical ideology.
The character issue seems to have been a wash. Trump had myriad character defects: he was vulgar, rude, obnoxious, and unfaithful. Clinton, on the other hand, wore the air of someone who could not be trusted. The silly excuses she gave for maintaining a private email server fooled no one except the extraordinarily gullible. The FBI investigation was devastating: the decision not to prosecute was understandable only in light of her political connections. Only the naive doubt that, but for her last name, she would currently be making license plates in a fetching orange jump suit in Fort Leavenworth. The whole affair seemed sleazy.
The media painted Trump as the wild-eyed radical, but a majority of the moderates disagreed. For most people, there is nothing about controlling immigration, getting the economy moving again, using our natural resources, abrogating poor deals that affect our national security (e.g., the Iran deal), etc., that is radical. In fact, some of these positions were once the positions of Democrats still in office.
So Trump captured a majority of the moderates, and pulled enough disgruntled Democratic voters (such as miners in West Virginia, and other voters that Clinton referred to in her statement above) to offset the loss of some of his base.
What does this tell us about the 2020 campaign?
I agree with Danish physicist Niels Bohr, that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” I am better at predicting the past. But if the proposition outlined in this article is in fact true, then the candidate who seems less radical will win the election.
At the time of this writing, there have been two Democratic primary debates held over four nights. Which one of the candidates seems to be moderate and mainstream?
From what I have seen, the Democratic candidates are for reparations for slavery; Medicare for all (i.e., the abolition of private health insurance); an unconstitutional wealth tax; open borders; socialism in higher education; the wrecking of the private economy in pursuit of global warming (or global climate change, or whatever it happens to be called these days); abortion up to the moment of birth; and higher taxes on the wealthy (which, when one does the math, turns out to be anyone who has a job that pays more than minimum wage). Given this field, it is not in the least surprising that an old liberal like Joe Biden appears to be downright conservative, in comparison. But, given the wild left-wing lurch of the base of the party, Biden is in a rush to repudiate some of his earlier positions. He knows that he needs the base to win the nomination, and he will go even further left in order to secure it.
I repeat the question: which one of the candidates seems to be moderate and mainstream?
It appears that Trump will be reelected. *
1 Hawley, George. What Really Happened in the Last Presidential Race. Law & Liberty, 27 June 2019.
2 Sides, John, et al. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. Princeton University Press, 2018.
3 Borchers, Callum. “A Russian Firm Spent $100,000 on Facebook Ads. Trump Spent $0 on TV Ads for the First 202 Days of His Campaign.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Sept. 2017.