Market Efficiency in Politics

Matt comes to a fairly interesting conclusion this morning:

The interesting thing about the 2008 election is that the political marketplace has responded to the collapse in support for Bush and the GOP in a pretty efficient manner — with the Republicans nominating someone who’s somewhat less conservative than Bush and whose association with the GOP brand is relatively weak, and the Democrats running on a more liberal agenda than they’ve had in recent cycles.

While I concur that it’s something bordering on amazing that, with the intracacies of the process and voting patterns being what they are in primaries, both parties seemed to have managed to pick their best prospect in the fied, to chalk this up the way Matt does is, I think, giving a bit too much credit to a fairly capricious outcome. I’ll put it this way; looking at the standpoint of things last year, by every extension of logical campaigning, the two candidates in this election should be Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. That they aren’t has much more to do with the mistakes of Hillary and Romney than with any particular success Obama or McCain had.

For example, what if the Henry memo hadn’t leaked, a real discussion about it could have taken place in Hillaryland, and the Clinton campaign had eventually decided to have minimized their presence in Iowa. Maybe the eventual defeat is less impactful and Clinton goes on to hold onto some African-American support from people who don’t think Obama is really viable. If nothing else, the campaign wouldn’t have found itself in such a cash crunch before Super Tuesday having not dropped tens of millions of dollars in Iowa. Or what if 2,500 votes or so had gone the other way and Clinton won Missouri, and subsequently managed to take the post-Super Tuesday narrative away from delegates and into the realm of “whose states matter?” Clinton would have had all of the big base states, and added the only really swing state of consequence that voted on Super Tuesday, and would possibly have staved off media obsession with delegates. Or, maybe more fundamental, what if instead of handing the campaign to an incompetent fool like Mark Penn the strategy had been guided by someone like Wolfson, Ickes, or anyone who understood what was going on? In any event, the likelihood of Clinton as the nominee goes up.

And all of that pales in comparison to Romney, who literally pissed the nomination away in record time. Ask yourself this; what did John McCain do to come back from irrelevance in the fall of 2007? I follow this stuff obsessively, and I can’t think of a single thing. Put simply, everyone else fell and McCain was the guy left standing. Rudy could never gain traction through the early primary states, Huckabee had to narrow of an appeal, and never broke out of the singular base of evangelical voters, and Thompson couldn’t bring himself to campaign for anything more than a nap. That left Romney and McCain as the only real competitors in the long run for the nomination, meaning that the race, ultimately, hinged on New Hampshire. Romney made the fundamental mistake of, ironically, too much cynicism. That is that Romney actually elieved that politics is about telling people what they want to hear and being a caricatured set of slated positions to fit the ACU, NRTL, NRA, and so on. Had he played to his strength, economics and being from outside of Washington, with minor tweaks to his social stances, by the time voting rolled around and the subprime bubble was popping, Romney would have been the prescient figure in the race, and the authoritative Republican on economic matters if for no other reason than he was the only one comfortable talking about it. Had he not made the fatal flaw of trying to appeal to evangelicals in Iowa, Romney could have won New Hampshire and pushed McCain out of the race, added his home fields in Nevada and Michigan, and then gone more or less one-on-one with a flailing Rudy in Florida, eventually setting up a showdown with Huckabee/Thompson on Super Tuesday where Romney would have won broadly across the country securing the nomination. But he tried to be a caricature, it didn’t work with evangelicals and left everyone else not trusting/loathing him.

There’s a lot of “what if’s” in there, but none of them strike me as being hugely implausible and radical. It’s not like I’m asking something like “what if we never went to war in Iraq” or anything, these are merely logical changes to campaign strategy, that seem obvious in hindsight and sensible at the moment. Either way, I think these sorts of mistakes have more to do with the outcome than “efficient” functioning or a political market, especially juxtaposed to a history of parties picking the wrong candidate.