(Mis)interpreting elections

From our first appearance on earth, human beings have searched for meaning.

We naturally incline toward interpreting events and ascribing significance to them.

A grizzled journalist of an earlier generation brought home to me the practical implications of this never-ending search. After one particularly dull and sparsely attended debate prior to the 1988 Iowa caucuses he called to ask, “What happened tonight?”

I expected a pat on the back for my refreshing honesty, but instead elicited a stern reply. 

“I’m a newspaper reporter,” huffed my questioner. “Buried in that word ‘newspaper’ is the word ‘news.’ If I call my editor and say nothing much of import happened tonight, he’s not even going to let me write a story, let alone put it on the front page. So, either you tell me why tonight was important or I will find someone who will.”

There are both the intrinsic and extrinsic pressures to find meaning in the events of the day and particularly in election results.

However, such assessments often produce a stunning array of contradictory conclusions and conflicting conventional wisdom.

That’s been the case this year.

Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania was widely interpreted as evidence that “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats with military biographies were poised to sweep the nation. Headlines trumpeted Democrats’ newly minted strategy, “Democrats bet on moderates, military veterans to win in GOP House districts.”

Never mind the fact that while Lamb eschewed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he campaigned on a mix of issues. Liberals were quick to note he wanted to protect Social Security, supported “universal health care” and opposed Trump’s tax cut, while conservatives focused on his opposition to a $15 minimum wage and “Medicare for all,” along with his embrace of gun rights. 

And let it not be forgotten that Lamb is a compelling and charismatic individual, while his opponent was called feckless, lazy and uninspiring — and that’s only what his supporters said.  

All the post-election analysis was based on anecdote and hearsay. No one had hard data to prove any conclusion at least none they were willing to share.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the commentariat reached just the opposite conclusion when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the fourth-ranking House Democrat, Joseph Crowley. A proud Democratic Socialist, Ocasio-Cortez’s win was hailed as a sure sign that victory required a shift to the left. 

Again, the torrent of commentary gave relatively short shrift to the fact that this was a primary, while Lamb’s victory was in a general election — or even that Lamb’s win was in a conservative district Trump won by  20 points,  while Ocasio-Cortez won in a district Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 60.

Identity too was under appreciated. Crowley is a middle-aged white guy representing a district where only 18 percent of the residents, and probably fewer primary voters, are white.   

Just as Ocasio-Cortez’s victory seemed to be at odds with the interpretations of Lamb’s, there was also plenty of evidence from elsewhere that she was not necessarily the vanguard of an ineluctable national future. 

In Texas, Laura Moser, dubbed the symbol of the left after being dissed by the establishment, was defeated by that establishment’s more moderate candidate in her runoff, mustering a dismal 28 percent. 

Indeed, Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders’s political organization lists 50 of its endorsed candidates who have won this year, and 63 who lost.

Blue Dogs, Sanders’s opposites within Democrats’ big tent, are less clear about the fate of their fewer endorsees, but they too won a series of primary victories across the country.

So perhaps neither wing of the party is invincible or the inevitable future. Perhaps candidates who reflect their districts tend to win. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for more than 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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