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Mock the threat?

- May 6, 2011

After my exchange with Jonathan Chait a few weeks ago, I remained puzzled. You might recall that Chait described various Republican candidates for president as Dukakisly unelectable–for example, “[Mitch] Daniels’s drawbacks begin — but by no means end — with his lack of height, hair and charisma,” but then after I brought up the well-known research of Doug Hibbs and others on the predicability of presidential election outcomes (in particular, there’s no evidence that Dukakis performed worse than expected), Chait clarified as follows:

Parties and candidates will kill themselves to move the needle a percentage point or two in a presidential race. And again, the fundamentals determine the bigger picture, but within that big picture political tactics and candidate quality still matters around the margins.

I agree on the above statement but disagree on where that one or two percentage points come from. I follow Steven Rosenstone and attribute much of the candidate effects to ideology (moderates do better than extremists) and the rest to campaign spending. Chait apparently thinks that height, hair, and charisma are more important. The signal is low enough and the number of cases small enough that it would be hard to know to what extent either of us is right.

But, given Chait’s general acceptance of the political science literature, why did he write a whole article for the New York Times about candidates’ appearance and charisma, rather than on the bigger picture created by the fundamentals? Surely NYT readers are not so phisticated that they already know about this?

Here’s one hypothesis which I formed after seeing this report from Hendrik Hertzberg on a conversation Mitch Daniels had with several reporters “ranging politics-wise from rightish (Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru) and leftish (Michael Kinsley, Josh Marshall) to neitherish (Mark Halperin)” in which the informal consensus of the leftish contingent was summed up in this exchange: ‘If we have to have a Republican…this one seems like he’d be better than the others.'” Hertzberg adds that “Daniels would be harder to beat” because of his moderate demeanor.

So that’s interesting. Liberal journalist Chait of the New Republic views Daniels’s modest affect as a “lack of charisma” which make him unelectable, while liberal journalist Hertzberg of the New Yorker describes Daniels as “relaxed” in a way that makes him an electoral threat.

At this point I’d like to bring Hertzberg and Chait together and discuss this. My instinct is that Hertzberg is closer to the truth–that it’s moderation, not charisma, that gets the votes. I wonder if at some level Chait believes this too and was mocking Daniels partly because he saw Daniels as a threat to the Democrats in 2012. Really, though, I think all these electability issues are pretty minor when it comes to the general election. The primaries are what’s unpredictable. Matthew Yglesias might very well be right in guessing that Daniels is figuring that he already has a reputation as a Republican moderate so he might as well stick with it.