The Air of Inevitability Smells Fairly Putrid

I just want to endorse every word of Tim Lee’s post on primary punditry:

[C]heck out the graph of the Iowa prediction markets during the last presidential race. At this point in the 2003 cycle, the leading candidate was Howard Dean, with a 33% chance of getting the nomination. Next came Wesley Clark at 28%, then John Kerry at 16%, and John Edwards was considered such a longshot that he was lumped into the “other” category with only a 1% chance of getting the nomination. Hillary Clinton was given about the same odds Al Gore is this year: 10%.
Things looked even crazier a month later. Howard Dean had soared to 62%, Hillary Clinton (not even an announced candidate) was second with 12%, and Clark and Gephardt were third and fourth with about 10% each. The eventual first and second place winners in Iowa, Kerry and Edwards, had less than 10% between them. A month after that, on December 14, Dean was beating kerry 72% to 2.6%, with Clark in a solid second place at 10%. Obviously, that’s not how things ended up.
I think that should help us get some perspective on the current prices, which in my experience mirror the pundit conventional wisdom: Clinton’s at 68%, Obama at 14%, and Edwards at 5%, with other candidates (presumably Gore and Richardson) combined at 13%. Based on past experience, the answer pundits should give when asked who will win the Democratic nomination (or the Republican nomination, for that matter) is “I have no idea.” That will continue to be true for the rest of this year and probably right up until the first primaries are held.

The simple fact of the matter is that the only people paying attention at this point are pundits and political junkies. I’m sure that every volunteer for every campaign you’ll talk to will say the same thing: that nine out of ten of the people they talk to are completely undecided and think it’s too early to even think about it. That’s the kind of sentiment that leads to 87% undecided rates. And any election where 87% of voters are undecided is up for grabs.
One other note: for all this discussion about Clinton’s inevitability, it’s rarely noted just how rarely frontrunners win the Democratic nomination. Since the advent of the modern Iowa-NH system in 1972, only twice (1984 and 2000) has the clear non-incumbent frontrunner at the beginning of the race won. George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry all started out far behind. Of those, only Carter and Kerry won Iowa; McGovern and Clinton didn’t even win the New Hampshire primary. It’s true that there’s a severe early-leader bias in the Republican primaries, but in Democratic primary history only the VP for a massively popular two-term president and a man possessing what the NY Times called “the most commanding lead ever recorded in a presidential nominating campaign by a non-incumbent” have been able to parlay frontrunner status into primary victory, and even Walter Mondale barely squeaked by after getting a good thrashing from Gary Hart. The fact of the matter is that a Clinton victory would be a historical exception; that doesn’t make it impossible, but it makes it less than likely.

4 thoughts on “The Air of Inevitability Smells Fairly Putrid

  1. It was almost a year ago that you endorsed the betting markets as evidence that Obama was more electable than Clinton. It was not that he was more likely to either get the nomination or win; but rather, the inferred probability that if nominated, he would win.
    That, at the time, was pretty thin evidence. Now that it is much closer to the primaries, the betting markets are a more serious matter. They aren’t the same now as the Iowa prediction market. There are many more bettors and a lot of real money at play. I agree that these odds should still be taken with a grain of salt; for one reason, they are just odds and the market does not say that Obama’s nomination is inconceivable. But dismissing the market as ignorant doesn’t make any sense. The betting line is either a correct or an incorrect match of our best knowledge. If it’s truly incorrect, then it would be a great investment for those who know better; in particular, for you.
    I personally don’t feel that I do know better.
    Also one of your other pro-Obama arguments is problematic in relation to the purpose of supporting any progressive candidate. You cited Obama’s fundraising as a tangible victory over Clinton. Besides that it is no longer quite true, has even the Democratic primary been reduced to voting with money?

  2. It was almost a year ago that you endorsed the betting markets as evidence that Obama was more electable than Clinton.
    If 2004 showed us anything it’s that electability is a very real concern for many primary voters. And, I agree, it’s a hard thing to predict. But we work with what we’re given. Whereas it’s reasonable to desire any, even faulty, information about how well candidates will fair in the general, it’s of little import to anyone to do know how a candidate’s placed in the primary field, especially if they’re clearly in the top tier when it comes to funding and organizations.
    [D]ismissing the market as ignorant doesn’t make any sense. The betting line is either a correct or an incorrect match of our best knowledge. If it’s truly incorrect, then it would be a great investment for those who know better; in particular, for you.
    You know that old William Goldman line about Hollywood, that no one knows anything? No one knows what will happen in the Iowa caucuses. Not me, not you, not the betting markets, not even the candidates’ staff. No one has a clue. I couldn’t predict how Iowa or NH would turn out today if you had to ask me. Are the markets the best info we have? Maybe. Is the best info we have really good? Certainly not.
    Besides that it is no longer quite true, has even the Democratic primary been reduced to voting with money?
    I think that happened a long time ago, Greg. It’s true that broke candidates like John Kerry can occasionally break through and win. It’s just not that common, and that’s partly due to a public financing system that is woefully inadequate for the kind of campaigns that are run nowadays. Thankfully, there’s a presidential candidate who implemented public financing for state races when in his state’s legislature and who is working with Russ Feingold to reform them nationally as well. I think you can guess who that is. The sad irony is that one must embrace the system in order to change it, at least in fundraising.

  3. It’s a principle of mathematical game theory that there is a fair betting line somewhere. Either you know better than the market or you don’t. If you truly know better, then you can make money by placing bets. If you don’t know better, then you have to concede that you have no argument against the posted betting line, which as you know says that Obama is a long shot.
    As for the fundraising, yes of course Obama has to raise a lot of money to get elected. But there is a big difference between that and pointing his fundraising as evidence that he’s ahead. That crosses the line from accepting fundraising to abetting it. The truth is that Clinton has raised plenty of money to compete with Obama, even if there was a period in which he raised more. Thankfully the money is still partly an entry fee rather than a sheer race. After all, they raise money to be heard. It is not always true that the candidate with the biggest megaphone wins, even though they must all buy expensive megaphones to have a chance.
    In fact, as of today, Clinton has more money in reserve than Obama. So it’s not just that equating fundraising with credibility is plutocratic. To the extent that the equation is correct, Obama is now in deep trouble.
    Personally I would be happy enough with either Clinton or Obama. I think that it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the horse race between them.

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