“A Wizard Underneath the Sheets”: Lessons from the Bayou

If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us! – Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1884)

Historical analogies can often be more obfuscating than illuminating. In the field of International Relations scholarship is dedicated to the overuse of false analogies to understand the decision-making of leaders. “Nasser is another Hitler“, “Saddam Hussein is another Hitler“, and “Ahmadinejad is Hitler” spring to mind as obvious examples. But sometimes the relevant example isn’t always Hitler. It’s an American White Supremacist.

Tim Stanley is one of the most astute observers of American politics. Full disclosure, I consider Tim a good friend of mine, but the reasons why he is such good company is also why you should read him- he’s smart but also wise. Tim combines the conceptual insight to identify macro-historical trends with the insight to recognise the particularities of the human condition in the moment. He’s an historian by training and combines the historian’s ability to marshall data points (often overlooked by others) with a psychological empathy which only the great ones also possess. Surviving hours in musty archives tends to take different skills to those who enjoy understanding real people “in the wild”. Anyway, while we may sometimes disagree on politics, I am always the richer for having considered Tim’s point of view. So it is that when Tim sounds the alarm to his fellow conservatives, many are sure to follow him. If Trump is just as bad- or worse!- than Hillary Clinton, how many will follow that logic through to its conclusion?

One of the questions that reading his column begs is: “How many conservatives will refuse to vote for Trump and instead either (a) sit out or (b) vote for Hillary?” Two prominent conservatives have claimed that they will not vote for The Donald in November. How many more will follow? How many conservatives are posturing to try and pour cold water on Trump electability arguments but will relent when Hillary looms as the alternative? And how many will follow through on their threats and switch to voting for the Democrat? Trump shows signs of pulling in voters who might have been deactivated from the political process but can they outnumber those voters who usually vote Republican but can’t stomach it this time?

The obvious historical analogy (at least for political nerds) for the potential Trump candidacy is the face-off between Gov. Edwin Edwards and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke for Louisiana Governorship in 1991. Edwards was, by then, a scandal-plagued former Governor who limped into a General Election with much of his party opposed to his nomination. However, thanks to facing Neo-Nazi David Duke in the General Election, Edwards received a wave of Republican endorsements, including from Republican President George H.W.Bush, opposing his own party’s nominee. Edwards had a knack for the bon mot: what would need to happen for him to lose against Duke? He’d need to be “caught in bed with a dead girl or live boy”. What, if anything, did he have in common with his opponent? Well, Edwards replied, they were “both wizards underneath the sheets”. These rhetorical flourishes were matched by the bumper stickers dreamed up by Republicans who found themselves rooting for their erstwhile political nemesis: “Vote For the Crook. It’s Important” and “Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard.” Edwards won with over 60% of the vote.

Hillary won’t win with 60% of the vote and important elements of the analogy fail to capture contemporary features of the looming showdown between Trump and Hillary. While her candidacy suffers from a lack of enthusiasm from Democrats- indeed, low primary turnout and the unlikely success of Bernie’s candidacy speak to Hillary’s ongoing weakness as a candidate in generating excitement- Hillary is far more acceptable to the American public as its Chief Exec than Edwards was to the people of Louisiana. Donald Trump, however, holds more appeal to many Democrats than Duke could claim in the Bayou, especially those who don’t often vote.

The two currents that are familiar from both races is the “turnout/persuasion” element. Political consultants often analyse a race using a “partisanship/turnout” matrix. Partisanship is scored from 0-10 (say, hardline Democrat to hardline Republican) and turnout is plotted on the Y-axis using the same scoring (0= never votes to 10=always votes). Campaigns tend to concentrate resources on the voters who are most “in play”- those who can be persuaded to switch sides (who are worth double in terms of taking a voter out of your opponent’s column) or turnout (“can a voter scored 5 on turnout be persuaded to vote, considering they might favour you if they did?”). Can Trump convince folk who look like non-voters come out for his candidacy? And can they counteract Republican defections to Hillary or a protest candidate (fmr. Governor Gary Johnson- now is your time to shine!)? The answer to this question will decide the next President.

As David Plouffe points out in a very insightful recent podcast, this is likely to scramble the political map. Trump might have more luck finding hidden voters in small towns in the Rust Belt and midwest than in traditional battlegrounds like Colorado and Florida. Reverse-partisanship (i.e. hating the Democrats is more important than liking the Republicans) might keep many conservatives in Trump’s camp, but Hillary might have to spend more time reaching out to both the right while doing her best to keep enthusiasm high enough to generate marginal turnout voters on her left. Does all she have to do is “stay alive” to beat Trump? Or will real effort have to be put into a “conservatives for Hillary” movement with bumper stickers giving permission for Republicans to go against their tribe? In the end what might be decisive for Hillary might be the intensity of the continuing Republican establishment’s perhaps forlorn attempt to warn their own party against Trump’s rise. After all, many of us saw 2016 as a likely “Time for a Change” election, but it might need them to break out the “Trump Change = Chump Change” bumper stickers if Hillary is to make it to the White House.

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