Primary amnesia: What the press forgets every election

The key lesson we forget every four years is that the nominating process stands in sharp contrast to the general election, where “fundamentals” often hold sway. While I’m skeptical about the predictive ability of academics and experts to call an election a year or two out, there’s good evidence that a combination of variables—mostly, but not exclusively economic—can provide a useful, if sometimes blunt instrument for gauging the outcome of an election. (When you get within a week or two of a presidential Election Day, you’d be pretty reckless not to trust the kind of analysis made famous by Nate Silver.)

Perhaps that fact shouldn’t be surprising; a general election in this country is binary. Given that we’ve only elected Democrats or Republicans for the past 165 years, a monkey with one red and one blue card in front of him ought to be able to bat .500; and as often as not, the outcome is a foregone conclusion weeks, if not months, before Election Day. Indeed, there are academic studies that argue more broadly that the general election campaign itself is almost wholly irrelevant to the outcome.

The history of primary elections, by contrast, suggests that they might as well take place on a different planet. The presidential nominating process usually involves a number of contestants. It moves by fits and starts; candidacies can rise, fall, revive and collapse with breathtaking speed. Again and again, months, even years of assumptions are thrown into a cocked hat by a sudden surge or implosion of a campaign. It’s a history that should lead any political journalist to question just how much the ever-increasing tonnage of pre-primary coverage really adds anything useful to our understanding of the process. When we look at the stories and conjectures of just the past two weeks or so—do Bernie Sanders’ crowds mean Clinton could lose? might Trump run third party? Has Jeb Bush’s “work longer hours” notion turned him into Mitt Romney 2.0?