Election as trial by combat?

The 2008 Democratic primary brings to mind a similar contest in 1972, where an experienced champion faced an exciting young challenger. I’m speaking, of course, of the world chess championship, where Bobby Fischer, down 2 games to zero, destroyed Boris Spassky and unequivocally established himself as the best player in the world.

The Clinton-Obama contest has led to confusion: Obama has basically won the election in the sense of being on track to get more than half of the delegates. In that case, how can Hillary Clinton retain the support of 40% of Democrats nationwide? And how did she manage to win Pennsylvania?

I think these questions represent a misunderstanding. The campaign has been viewed as a chess match or sporting contest in which Obama and Clinton, with their similar policy agendas, are viewed as competing on electability, with the idea being that candidates battle it out in the sequence of state primaries. The trouble with this story is that, first, it’s hard to know about the candidates’ relative electability (I’d actually argue that there isn’t much difference in any case) and, second, voters do differ on which candidate they prefer.

After the World Championship, there weren’t too many people around who thought Spassky was the better player. After an election, though, the supporters of the losing candidate don’t suddenly decide they made a mistake. Even after Obama wins, Clinton’s supporters are still allowed to prefer her.

P.S. I’m not saying that I predicted the outcomes in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc., or even that they were predictable. Rather, I’m saying that in light of what happened, the Pennsylvania vote shouldn’t seem like a surprise, or something that needs additional explanation (Obama failing to connect with white voters, or whatever).

6 thoughts on “Election as trial by combat?

  1. Yes, Fisher won in 1972 — and, in the long run, went down in flames.

    As to Spassky, I will crib from Wikipedia:

    "Spassky is respected as a universal player, a great storyteller, a bon vivant on occasion, and someone who is rarely afraid to speak his mind on controversial chess issues, and who usually has something important to relate."

    "Spassky's later years showed a reluctance to totally devote himself to chess. He relied on his natural talent for the game, and sometimes would rather play a game of tennis than work hard at the board. Since 1976, Spassky has been happily settled in France with his third wife; he became a French citizen in 1978, and has competed for France in the Chess Olympiads.

    "But Spassky did score some notable triumphs in his later years."

    So, if you could choose a life, would you choose Bobby Fisher or Boris Spassky? It's not cut and dried.

    Any similarity in what I wrote to Bush versus Gore in 2000 is purely coincidence ;)

  2. Additional explanation for Clinton success in Pennsylvania:

    1) PA has 2nd highest % of 'old people' in the U.S.
    2) Voters not registered Democrat (e.g., Independents) were not allowed to cast a vote in the Primary.

    Group (1) favor Clinton, Group (2) favor Obama. These dynamics helped put Obama in check, but he is still positioned to force the ultimate checkmate in the coming months.

  3. One other aspect of the political-campaign-chess-match assumption: that any player can win any game if he or she just comes up with the right strategy, the right sequence of moves against the opponent. Underlying this assumption is the further assumption that the electorate is composed mostly of idiots whose votes can be won if only the candidate presents himself or herself in the right way.

  4. I don't buy that further assumption at all. Political strategy isn't essentially based on the assumption that the electorate are composed mostly of idiots.

    I happen to work in politics and believe that people are pretty smart. I may disagree with their reasoning a good portion of the time, but I'm smart people can disagree. My conception of strategy includes (in large part) education.

    Getting people who agree with my candidates to vote is a big, big part of this. Getting people to agree with my candidates is another part, and if I assume they are idiots, I could be in a lot of trouble.

  5. eric,
    I too do not buy either of the assumptions I mentioned. My point was that these seem to be the assumptions of the people who talk about an election as though it were a sporting event or chess match.

  6. I think you have it right on here.

    Demography is destiny. Even beyond that, Clinton was ahead by 26% in PA after the primaries in Texas and Ohio. The question becomes, how did she not retain that lead. Part of the lead could be rightly called a sampling error, as polls of PA were not as regular prior to March 4th. but the trend (20% lead to 10% lead) is unmistakable.

    We have this running fallacy about the democratic primaries, and it is ALMOST a conscious fallacy. We speak academically and analytically about states being made up differently, about certain states "tailored" to certain candidates, but when it comes time to talk about recent results, all that goes out the window. We talk about Hillary "coming back" from losses in February to win Texas and Ohio, as if the elections in Texas and Ohio were somehow contingent upon contests in other states. I'm not rejecting the momentum argument, but we are often not making a momentum argument. We aren't making an argument at all. We make the same mistake with Barack Obama (but it is less so, mostly due to the difference in spin). It is almost conscious because we don't actually mean to commit the fallacy–it isn't used to mislead or persuade. At the same time, it isn't unconscious. We outline it, talk about it, warn against it…and still commit it.

    This about it as the sportwriter problem. We need to generate a narrative, otherwise the events we are experiencing are meaningless and adrift. The sportswriter needs a narrative or his copy will basically read like a play-by-play, which often isn't that thrilling. So we invent stories about LeBron James having to live up to Jordan's memory as a rookie as though that narrative had any sort of explanatory or predictive power in the NBA playoffs. We invent the narrative of the "comeback" to keep what is really a boring race interesting, even though "comeback" assumes that the candidates face each other in similar situations and the outcomes change. I'm not taking a nihilist stance here–I don't feel that narratives are always inappropriate. But I do feel that we trot them out far too often.

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