Out of Iowa

In his inaugural State of the Commonwealth address last week, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker said he could sum up his first year in office in one phrase:  “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised.”

It’s the sort of laconic, practical wisdom for which Baker has become known and liked around these parts.  (He is currently the most popular governor in the country, despite being a Republican in a sea of liberalism.)  Specifically, Baker was referring to such surprises as a massive budget deficit and the most ridiculous winter in the history of Boston.

In fact, at this moment, “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised” is possibly the most valuable advice any of us could ask for.

Why?  Because Monday is the Iowa Caucus, that’s why.

Yup.  After years of anticipation (or so it feels), we have finally made it to the official opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign.  For all the pontificating that has occurred throughout the past year, Monday’s gathering in the Hawkeye State will be the first time actual humans cast actual votes for actual candidates.

Notwithstanding all the imperfections inherent in the caucus system—really, the whole process is nothing but imperfections—on Tuesday morning, we will have a much clearer sense of where the race stands than we do now.  And if there is one thing I can impart by way of context, it is not to be surprised when you get surprised.  Something weird is going to happen, and you might as well be prepared for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that surprise will be.  I haven’t the slightest idea who’s going to win the Iowa Caucus—or place second or third—nor do I know how those results will affect the 49 primaries and caucuses to come.

That’s not the point.  The point is:  Nobody else knows, either.

Hundreds—if not thousands—of polls have been conducted by dozens of organizations in the past year regarding the 2016 election, but the truth is that not a single person (with the possible exception of Nate Silver) can make a head or tail of what they mean.  Some pundits are dignified enough to admit it.  Most are not.

To be honest, I was all set to go into depth about the futility of presidential opinion polls, but New York Times columnist Frank Bruni beat me to the punch.  “We’re leaning harder than ever on polling precisely when that makes the least sense,” Bruni wrote last Sunday.  “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”

Bruni’s best example of this (mine, too) is the fact that last week—on the exact same day—two separate surveys were released in New Hampshire showing a 3-point margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the first case, and a 27-point margin in the second.

Yup:  Same state, same week, same candidates, 24-point difference.

In an ideal world, that would be all we need to know about the uselessness of opinion-mongering as a predictor of who’s going to be the next president.  For Pete’s sake, if two reputable organizations can disagree that much about something that’s supposed to be so scientific, on what basis can we trust any statistic purporting to represent the views of the voting public?

The bottom line—as statisticians will tell you—is that the results of any single poll don’t mean a damn thing.  When it comes to elections, all that really matters is when a whole bunch of polls manage to agree with each other.  If one result says Sanders leads by 3 while another says he leads by 27, all we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.  But if two—or three or four—organizations say Sanders leads by 3, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, quite often we have gotten relative consistency among the many outfits measuring the presidential race.  Indeed, the reason we all think Donald Trump truly is the GOP frontrunner is that he has placed first in just about every survey that has been taken in the past six months.  (All except four, to be precise.)  That—for better or worse—is what you call a pattern.

But patterns can be deceiving.  Just because you win the first 18 games of the season doesn’t mean you’ll win the Super Bowl, and a presidential candidate who spends an eternity as the “favorite” doesn’t necessarily win the first primary.

Surely, the 2008 election proved this once and for all.  Hillary Clinton—the Trump in that contest, as it were—spent the entirety of 2007 as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, then suddenly placed third in the Iowa Caucus, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.  With that, the narrative changed overnight from “Hillary has it all wrapped up” to “Obama is going all the way.”

Over the next few days, polls and pundits predicted Obama would not only prevail in the New Hampshire primary, but that it would be a rout—possibly a double-digit victory for the newbie from the South Side.

And what actually happened?  You guessed it:  Clinton won the Granite State by 2.6 points.

As a consequence of the Iowa-New Hampshire split, the nomination fight continued, state by state, until the bitter end.  Clinton did not formally concede until June 7—four days after the final votes had been cast.  By then, the entire electorate had been put through the proverbial wringer, fostering many years of bitterness between operatives of the two campaigns.

Could something like that happen in 2016?  You bet your sweet bippy it could—possibly in both parties, and definitely in the 12-person GOP.  Ask yourself:  Do Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie strike you as the sort of men who would go gently into that good night?  Does Bernie Sanders?  We know Clinton’s not going anywhere until the last dog dies, so why should we expect either of these contests to wrap up with all deliberate speed?  What, may I ask, is the hurry?

The final presidential primary is June 14.  I would be very surprised if we knew both parties’ nominees before then.  Indeed, I don’t see why the Republican race shouldn’t go all the way to the party convention in July (on the 40th anniversary of the last time such a thing occurred).

Then again, in a year in which we have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps a swift and clean primary season would be the most unexpected outcome of all.  Maybe the whole thing will be settled by Tuesday morning, leaving us to enjoy the next six months in peace.

That would certainly be a surprise.  Considering how much fun we’ve had so far, it would not necessarily be a welcome one.

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