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The Ballad of Johnny Unbeatable

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I keep meaning to respond to Ezra’s “HILLARY CLEARED THE FIELD” piece, which is the best of its genre and not very convincing even so. (TL, DR: 1)no such theory can coherently explain why O’Malley doesn’t count and why Sanders ran a very strong race that never lacked the resources to be competitive; 2)even if you buy the premise, I’m not sure what the implications are that don’t involve a plea to take the politics out of politics.) In the meantime, I recommend this one-act play from wjts:

“Hello! I’m [person who thinks it’s brilliant to argue that in retrospect primary voters should pick the candidate who is guaranteed to win]. Can I talk to you about the upcoming primary?”

“I guess.”

“Who are you voting for?”

“Probably Steve Sherman. I like what he has to say about education.”

“Steve Sherman? The black guy? That’s a terrible choice. Black candidates alienate white voters. We need to win!”

“Well, my wife says she’s voting for Denise Rodriguez. Do you think she’s a better choice?”

“A Hispanic woman? Who’s also a lesbian? God, you people make me sick. It’s like you’re trying to lose.”

“Well, those are the only two candidates running.”

“Why didn’t you idiots nominate Johnny Unbeatable? You should vote for Johnny Unbeatable.”

“Who’s that? I’ve never heard of him.”

“Who’s Johnny Unbeatable? I’ll tell you who he’s not: he’s not a minority, not a woman, and, most importantly, not beatable.”

“OK, but who is he?”

“He’s Johnny Unbeatable. The unbeatable candidate.”

“Yeah, but who is he? I’ve literally never heard of him.”

“He’s Johnny Unbeatable!”

“Yes, you keep saying that. Can you tell me anything else about him? Like, previous experience, policies, stuff like that?”

“He doesn’t support any unpopular policies, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s part of what makes him unbeatable.”

“Well, what policies does he support?”

“Not being beaten, that’s one. Not losing, that’s another. Being
unbeatable, that’s probably my favorite. Not being beaten. Did I say
that already?”

“You did.”

“Well, it’s an important part of his platform.”

“OK, but, again: who is he? I mean, I’ve lived here my whole life,
been pretty involved in local politics for the last couple of years, and
I’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s Johnny Unbeatable, you goddamn imbecile! He’s not a minority,
not a woman, and not beatable. What part of this don’t you understand?”

“Is… did you just make this guy up? I mean, I didn’t want to say it
at first, but ‘Johnny Unbeatable’ doesn’t sound like a real person’s
name.”

“It’s Johnny Unbeatable’s name! He’s unbeatable! Why the fuck
didn’t you nominate Johnny Unbeatable? Don’t you dare shut that door! I still have more things to yell about Johnny Unbeatable!”

Again, one fatal problem with any “Biden/Bernie/O’Malley woulda won” counterfactual is that they almost always involve ceteris paribus assumptions that are completely untenable. It’s superficially persuasive to say that “any Democrat would have gotten better media coverage than Clinton, that coverage (especially as catalyzed by Comey, who also may not have gone rogue against another nominee) probably cost Clinton the election, so therefore any other Dem nominee would have won.” Only of course you can’t hold everything else constant. Biden might have gotten generally more favorable media coverage than Clinton — but done worse in the debates, committed twenty other distracting gaffes, done worse with women voters, and narrowly lost anyway. You can’t construct counterfactuals that take away Clinton’s (very real!) liabilities but not her strengths.

Or let’s leave the media out of it. The key to Trump’s win was not attracting more white voters per se but trading college-educated white voters for white voters without college degrees but doing OK economically, a tradeoff that was useful on the Electoral College. The superficially persuasive case for Bernie is to say that he would have done better among the latter group and won. I think this is plausible, but. Paul observed recently that Virginia shows that the GOP can lose even more college-educated suburbanites than it’s already lost, but this cuts both ways — it was not inevitable that the GOP would lose as many as it already did in 2016. Bernie might have won; it’s also very possible that the candidate who labelled his left-liberalism as “socialism” would have done better than Macomb County than Clinton but worse in Oakland County and lost Michigan anyway.

The fact is that in electoral terms we don’t know and will never know who the best Democratic nominee was in 2016, and we don’t know and will never know who the optimal Democratic nominee is in 2020. No primary system is guaranteed to pick the “right” candidate, not least because we don’t actually know who that is.

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