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On the Extremely Limited Value of Campaign Tactics Tautologies



After every remotely close election campaign, there are almost as many just-so stories about how there was one perfect campaign tactic that could have changed the outcome as there are pundits. And the problem is that the vast majority are just unfalsifiable tautologies with no retrospective or prospective value:

Like most pundits, I have my theories about how the Clinton campaign might have screwed up. In retrospect, for example, it seems like the campaign made a mistake in making so much of its advertising negative attacks on Donald Trump’s character. Given that Trump always had high personal negatives these attacks had diminishing returns, and Clinton missed an opportunity to highlight economic policy differences where public opinion favored her position. While it was not unreasonable to think Trump’s particular unfitness for office created an opportunity to peel off suburban Republicans, it didn’t work.

This is a plausible story, but to be frank it’s just that: a story. Would Clinton using a more positive, policy-focused advertising campaign in the last month have allowed her to hold enough of the Rust Belt states that handed Trump the Electoral College? I have no idea, and there’s no meaningful way to address the question.

Consider an example from the last election involving the popular vote winner failing to take office in January. For 16 years, I have been hearing people assert with the most sublime confidence that Al Gore’s decision to distance himself from Bill Clinton cost him the 2000 election. There’s no way of testing this theory directly, of course. But 2016 presented us with an indirect one. Hillary Clinton had a popular incumbent, one of the greatest political talents the Democratic Party has ever produced and without the scandal baggage and reputation for dishonesty that made deploying Bill Clinton a much more complicated question than Gore’s critics will acknowledge, stumping hard for her. And, as a bonus, the incumbent’s extremely popular and charismatic wife was also out on the campaign trail for the first major-party woman to be nominated for president. What was that worth?

Well, apparently, not much. Either the Obamas failed to move the needle, or they had an impact but it was swamped by other factors which can’t be meaningfully measured. When it comes to campaign tactics, for the most part, nobody really knows anything. Be wary of assertions that there was One Magic Trick a candidate could have used to win an election, and be doubly wary when this magic bullet is an argument that the candidate advancing the policy ideas the pundit agrees with is also by remarkable coincidence always the best political strategy as well.

A huge percentage of campaign analysis consists of two basic and related categories:

  • “The losing candidate had worse messaging, which we can tell because he/she lost.”
  • “The losing candidate would have won had she emphasized issues x/y/z in exactly this way, which entirely coincidentally aligns perfectly with my own ex ante policy views.”

Both of these arguments are abjectly useless the vast majority of the time.

But even when the arguments are a little more concrete, there’s an obvious danger in relying to heavily on the mistakes of the past:

One rejoinder might be that while Michigan and Wisconsin ended up not being decisive, they could have been. Had Clinton carried Pennsylvania or Florida — both roughly within a point — then the decision to largely ignore Michigan and Wisconsin while investing in Ohio and Iowa, both of which Clinton lost by more than 8 points, would look really bad. It’s a fair point. But the blunder the Clinton campaign made was to fight the last war, to be too slow to pick up on the particular threat that Trump posed in the Rust Belt.

This isn’t to say that Democrats shouldn’t analyze and try to learn from the defeat. But it’s crucial to remember that the 2016 election is never going to be run again. We’ve learned for sure that Hillary Clinton should not be the Democratic nominee again, but I don’t think that’s something to worry about. Trump will presumably be on the ballot again, but as an incumbent with a record. What message and strategy the Democratic candidate should use will depend on who wins the nomination, what Trump’s record looks like, and what the salient issues are. The 2020 election will be its own thing and should be treated as such. As Hillary Clinton now knows all too well, what we think we know about politics can be turned on its head very quickly.

What messaging and resource allocation will be optimal in 2020 will depend on the candidate — the opportunities and limitations presented by, say, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris and Sherrod Brown would be different. There will presumably be an incumbent on the ballot and depending on how that goes the Democratic candidate could be a mortal lock, drawing dead or somewhere in between. Which, of course, brings us to a crucial point: the ability of congressional Democrats to drive down Trump’s approval ratings by obstructing and refusing to give bipartisan cover to what they can’t stop is far more important than the campaign tactics adopted by the 2020 nominee.

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