Saturday, August 13, 2016

Apophenia in Political Journalism!

It's no secret that I, like most folks, am not a fan of Candidate 345, aka Donald Trump. (BTW, "345" stands for three marriages, four bankruptcies, five draft deferments - not exactly the markers for a responsible life.) However, this is a NerdBlog, and for the most part I've tried to keep politirants out of it.

Something occurred to me recently, though, that deals with a pretty nerdy topic: apophenia, the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns in random data. It's what gives us faces on Mars, conspiracy theories, and the "Hot Hand" fallacy. And I think that political journalists, whether they are for, against, or detached from Trump, have been epic apophenists.

It occurred to me while I was reading this article about Trump speaking at a rally in Connecticut. The author, Katie Glueck, seemed

genuinely puzzled by Trump's decision. Connecticut isn't just a reliably blue state, where Clinton has an enormous lead; it's also a relatively small state, with only seven electoral votes. Finally, it's very late in the campaign, with less than three months until the election. Surely Trump could have expended his effort more profitably someplace else.

And that was where I saw the bias. Political journalists - particularly those who cover elections, and especially those who cover elections in the infamous "horse race" style - make three unconscious assumptions about the race. Here they are:

1. All the candidates want to win.
2. All the candidates have strategic electoral reasons for their actions.
3. For the major candidates, a campaign win outweighs other possible beneficial outcomes.

For example, this article from is a classic "horse race" piece, focused on polls. This one from is focused on strategy. Both of them assume that their subjects want to win the election beyond anything else. These are the assumptions. But they're not necessarily true.

Thanks to open primaries, the cheapness of social media, and the ease with which individual donors can now bankroll candidates, it is much easier to become a major-party presidential primary candidate than it used to be. If you secure the interest of a single wealthy backer, you might be supported financially through the majority of the process, the way Sheldon Adelson did with Newt Gingrich in 2012. If you can snare the interest of the media, you might not need a traditional campaign infrastructure: Trump relied on fifteen years of "brand awareness" for his primary campaign, which has been notable for its lack of traditional spending. While the Democrats for the last 20 years have had primaries with only two or three important candidates, the last few GOP primaries have featured half a dozen or more.

If it's that easy to become a presidential candidate, then a primary candidacy is suddenly cheap enough - in terms of money, effort, and human capital - to be used for things other than taking a serious shot at the White House. Maybe you use that primary to sell books, or t-shirts, or other branded merchandise. Maybe you use it to generate speaking engagements. Maybe you use it to push favored policies onto the party platform. Or maybe, if you're spiteful enough and have some time on your hands, you just use it to piss off the party regulars who can't ignore you any more.

This means that Assumptions #1 and #3 are off the table. If it is that easy to run, you might end up with a candidate winning the primaries who did not plan for it, and doesn't really want to run the country.

Like Trump.

A few months ago, the Trump campaign made Ohio Governor John Kasich an amazing offer: Be Trump's Vice-President, and Kasich would be in charge of both foreign and domestic policy. When Kasich asked what would be left for Trump to do, Trump's son replied "Making America great again." Kasich would run the country, and Trump would fly around on Air Force One. [Trump's team later denied the story, but they've also denied every story that has made their candidate look bad, even when the proof is irrefutable. Kasich also had no reason, beside spite, to make up the story; there was every reason at the time to believe that its spread would make his political life more difficult.]

This is not the offer of a candidate who wants to run the country. And if you ditch that assumption about Trump, his visit to Connecticut becomes a lot more comprehensible. Trump wants to win the election, sure, because that's about his self-image. He has to see himself, and be seen, as a winner. That's his raison d'ĂȘtre, his brand. But he has no clue about what he would do in the White House. He has no goal, no plans, no real policies. (His latest policy speech, about the economy, was widely considered a disaster.) Everything he does is to feed that image with the least amount of time and trouble for himself.

Instead of seeing him as a politician, look at him as a...toddler. Or a puppy. Or a vain and insecure model. A creature who doesn't plan far ahead, but craves attention. How much do you want to bet that Connecticut is near Trump's HQ, and after a month of campaign disasters worse than anything in the last thirty years, he needed a lift. So he decided to go to a rally and get that audience jolt.

And that's all there is to it. No careful plan. No misguided tactics. Just a narcissist in need of a mirror.

Apophenia unnecessary.

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