It's an election year, so we have months of commentary on the political horse race ahead of us, and most of it will be meaningless chatter. Media talking heads will examine negative ratings, job approval numbers, trust on the economy, and popularity with specific constituencies like women, youth, and Hispanics. They will look at national numbers as well as state polls with a view to the all-important Electoral College. But is there a science of politics that can predict outcomes in these matters?
When I was a freshman at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, the great political scientist Nelson Polsby gave a guest lecture in which he argued that the election of Ronald Reagan was a fluke, largely a protest vote against an unpopular president. There was no electoral realignment and he had the figures to prove it. But unlike this accomplished scholar, I was not confused by the facts. I sat there thinking this fellow was so lost in his data that he could not see the only thing that mattered. Regardless of why people voted for Reagan, by 1984 he would charm them not only into loving him, but also into thinking they had always loved him. I predicted (take my word for it) that he would win reelection in a landslide, which he did.
In other words, the best view of the race for the White House may not be from the depth of the data mine but in the peripheral vision of the engaged layman who is not too deeply engaged. Ian Leslie reports on research that shows the danger of "choking" when you "overthink" a decision or move, as in sports. Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, he tells us, finds that:
"[Y]ou have to be skilled at ignoring information. He found that a portfolio of stocks picked by people he interviewed in the street did better than those chosen by experts. The pedestrians were using the "recognition heuristic": They picked companies they'd heard of, which was a better guide to future success than any analysis of price-earning ratios."
Think of Eddie Murphy's character in Trading Places.
So what does the "pedestrian" see when he applies his "heuristic" to the November presidential election? Again, I go back to 1980. I had heard that Ronald Reagan was a mean, saber-rattling monster. But when I saw him for the first time in his debate with Jimmy Carter, I found a cheerful, soft-spoken grandfather, but one who was sharp and sensible. I was 18, and he won me.
Today, I think when people eyeball the political field they see a blame-shifting president who hasn't accomplished a lot except a healthcare law that most people don't like. But his challenger seems like a cheerful guy who knows business when business is our problem in a chronically slow economy. To the average voter, everything else-the dog on the roof, Bain Capital, flip-flops, and gaffes-is just chatter. That's my pre-Memorial Day call. But anything can happen in politics.