Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Gore, Bush, Kerry and Chaos Theory

Brad Peachy has some good advice for John Kerry on how to debate George W. Bush, based on lessons learned from the Gore/Bush debates in 2000:

On October 3, 2000, Vice-President Gore stepped up to the podium for a debate against then Governor George Bush. If ever the American people could see a razor-sharp intellect with a deep grasp of fact and policy contrasted with a frat boy who majored in beer drinking, this would be it.

Bush was already notorious for using words such as "misunderestimate" and phrases such as "is our children learning." His stump speeches were a hodgepodge of one sentence bumper stickers that actually included "don't mess with Texas," whatever the heck that means.

Gore on the other hand had already proven his dead-on debating skills. The Vice-President elect had reduced the normally combative and fast-talking Ross Perot to humiliating outbursts of "can I talk . . . can I finish?" in the NAFTA debate on "Larry King Live." In the 1996 campaign, Gore sacked former pro quarterback Jack Kemp in the Vice Presidential debates, neutralizing Dole's most effective ally to take the White House.

Yet, somehow, Bush "beat" Gore in the debates (at least according to the way the media judged these things). Peachy gives several good examples from the debate why Gore failed against Bush and then concludes with this:

So Bush beat Gore because Bush ran on his record - and Gore let him get away with it, acting as if Bush's record in Texas had nothing worthy of criticism and the man was a bipartisan statesman. In fact, the one comment Mr. Gore did make about Bush's tenure was to commend him on his quick response to fires and floods in the state. On the other hand, Gore, instead of running on his and Bill Clinton's stellar record, couldn't stop talking about future plans, proposals, and provisions, as if he hadn't held the second highest office in the land for the last eight years.

If we could have seen a little bit more of that "lethal debater" and a little less of Mr. Policy Wonk, our beloved country might not be facing another four years of welfare for the rich and wars without end. Perhaps it is a lesson that John Kerry, the current Democratic candidate will not forget.

Anyone who followed the election closely that year may recall several stories about political scientists who developed statistical models that predicted that Gore would easily win the 2000 election. Yet the race was much closer than any of them predicted. Were they simply wrong? Not quite. They were right, as long as you take into account one of their fundamental mistakes: how they assigned roles for the players in the contest.

These models were premised on measuring the positive and negative factors influencing the victory or defeat of "the incumbent" or "the challenger". Since the natural incumbent, Bill Clinton, was not running last time, the scientists plugged Gore into the model as his surrogate. George W. Bush as the presumed challenger.

The problem was this: Bush ran on a platform that implied that it was the natural place of the Republicans, and a Bush Republican in particular, to be the president. Gore, in the meantime, ran away from Bill Clinton's record in order to avoid being associated with Clinton's seamier side. This required Gore to run as if his previous eight years as vice president had never happened. In other words, Bush ran his campaign as if he were the incumbent and Gore ran his as if he were the challenger.

This skewed the models terribly. The voting public knew in their minds that Gore was the incumbent, so that gave him a plus. But he ran as if he were the challenger which gave him a minus (for Bush the effects were reversed).

The result was one of the closest elections in American history.

Obviously, these models are failures as predictors. However, they can be a valuable source material for campaign managers. If the models say "the incumbent" is favored to win, then run as if your guy is the incumbent even if he isn't. And if the models say "the challenger" is favored to win, then run as if your guy is the challenger even if he isn't.

And that's how you use Chaos Theory to win elections!


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