I’m reasonably confident (i.e. I’ll lay you 30-1 or 40-1, i.e. I think there’s a 97%+ chance) that Mitt Romney is going to be the 2012 GOP nominee for President. Now, I could be wildly wrong in my estimation. And regardless of whether Romney wins or not, we’ll never know for sure. Unless you assign a 100% or 0% chance of something occurring, any observable single-trial result will plausibly conform to your estimation.
So leave that aside.What I want to talk about here is why the race appears so much tighter than that. And the reason is simple: virtually everyone involved has an incentive to portray the race as still wide open. Let’s take a look:
1. The media. This is the most obviously biased actor. Uncertainty is the press’ best friend in elections. You can’t sell advertising during debates that no one wants to watch, and no one wants to watch a debate for a race that is over. Ditto for election night coverage in individual primary states. No one is going to watch the returns if there is only one competitive candidate. So political news ratings/sales will be higher if the horse-race continues until late spring or (god help us) to the convention (which it won’t). Therefore, the press has every reason to play up the competitiveness of the race, even after everyone else has more or less conceded it is over.
2. The Democrats. President Obama and other political opponents obviously have an interest in the GOP primary actually being drawn out, because it would sap the collective resources of the candidates. But Democrats also have an incentive to portray the race as competitive even if it is not, for at least three reasons. First, it ties the reasonable and stronger candidates (like Romney) to the unreasonable and unelectable candidates. If GOP voters can’t choose between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, then it might reason that Romney is similar to Paul, or that GOP voters think they are both reasonable candidates, or both. Second, it fosters the belief that GOP voters don’t really like their best candidates, or that the party is caught in some sort of civil war. Either of those beliefs might turn off moderate voters. Finally, there’s the plausible meta-possibility that pretending an election is close may actually make it closer, or at least draw it out (but more on this later.)
3. Iowa and New Hampshire. If the race were over and everyone knew it, then there would be a lot of downsides for the early primary states. Candidates wouldn’t be visiting constantly and making promises, local politicians wouldn’t have the chance to appear with candidates and make endorsements, and local media wouldn’t be able to host debates, sell advertising, and make more money. I mean, you don’t see President Obama prancing around Iowa and New Hampshire non-stop for the Democratic nomination, do you? One of the advantages of going first in the sequential primaries is to have leverage in choose between competitive candidates. But a second reason is to extract promises from whoever ends up winning the nomination, and that’s a whole lot easier if the race appears competitive.
4. Later Primary States. Same logic applies here as above. Many of the benefits of holding a primary are only conferred if the primary is competitive. But again, that threshold is met not by the race being undecided, but by the appearance of the race being possibly undecided.
5. Pollsters. There was a long (and wonderful) nerdfight earlier this year on the internet over the relative importance of polling and fundamentals in predicting the outcome of elections. My personal opinion is that in primaries, both are relevant, but fundamentals are more important. Others disagree. But anyone who throws the lion’s lot with polling needs to believe that the race is still at least somewhat competitive, because Romney doesn’t have anything near a majority in the national polls, and can be found to be losing in state polls in Iowa. If the race is over right now, then the polls are rendered very blunt instruments of analysis.
6. The non-Romney candidates. The basic link here is resources. If the race is over and everyone knows it, you will not be receiving much in the way of donations, volunteers, endorsements, or anything else that can help you win. That’s probably also true if you have less than a 2% chance and everyone knows it. But what if you have a 2% chance and everyone thinks you have a 25% chance? Now that’s a situation you might want to create. Sure, you’re still a longshot. But at least you will have a compelling answer on the phone when someone wants to know why they should give you $2000.
7. Romney. At first glance, this seems ridiculous. And on one level, it is: if Romney has a 85% chance of winning, he might be better off convincing everyone that he has a 100% chance of winning, which would dry up his opponents fundraising and give him that last 15%, which would plausibly allow him to turn his attention to the general election and begin his pivot.
But what if Romney does indeed have a 98% or 100% chance of winning the nomination right now, he knows it, but everyone else (see above) is pretending it’s not true? He can’t just go out and say it or act on it in any way, because he could conceivably hurt himself. No voters want to hear it, everyone else would be denying it, and he would sound arrogant. So at the bare minimum, Romney has to play along with the competitiveness thing for now.
But he also has to consider resources. The primaries are an excellent opportunity to mobilize volunteers in various states, gather data like phone numbers, expand your fundraising base, and get people excited. A continued primary season aids this; by the time you get to the last primaries, it’s not really possibly to mobilize and activate a large cadre of volunteers. Now, at some point (rather early, I would say) the benefits of turning to the general election outweigh the benefits of being able to highly mobilize resources in sequential primary states. But that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, until after all the other actors stop pretending the primaries aren’t over. And so at least until then, Mitt has the incentives, just as they do, to publicly see this thing as a race.
8. Political Junkies. You really think my wife would put up with me talking and writing about this endlessly if I admitted it was over?