Political science of McCain

I doubt that John McCain’s ex-staffers, John Weaver and Terry Nelson, ever spent much time pondering the academic treatises of René Thom, the French mathematician who developed catastrophe theory in the 1970s. But when they get ready to reflect on the chaos that resulted in their resignations, they might turn to Thom and his notions that “small changes in certain parameters of a non-linear system can cause equilibria to appear or disappear, or to change from attracting to repelling and vice versa, leading to large and sudden changes of the behavior of the system.”

Thom’s ideas have been used to predict bridge failures, capsizing ships at sea, bearish stock markets, locust infections, prison riots and other interesting stuff, but never to explain failing political campaigns, so far as I know. Related scientific ideas like astrophysics’ Copernican Principle or Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory have been used to predict political phenomena ranging from the tenure of politicians to the advent of policy innovations, but most political campaign-related events seem to escape scientific explanation and prediction.

What will happen to the McCain campaign? Can it get itself righted and stay afloat, or will “the system” snap, collapse and sink? Unfortunately, modern political science has little systematic knowledge to offer when explaining the causes and consequences of bad news about presidential campaigns. Thom and his pupils would say that political campaigns are “complex systems” with more than five significant variables, rendering them inscrutable to rational, mathematical analysis.

A former academic colleague once groused that “from the beginning, political science was so insecure about itself that it had to stick ‘science’ into its name, just to try and be taken seriously.” Perhaps acknowledging their uncertainty about the predictability of politics, some “political science” departments at respected universities don’t even adopt the discipline’s name, preferring instead to be known simply as the Department of Government.

Uncertainty, however, has not stopped many professional political scientists from speculating about the fate of McCain’s campaign. Virtually every quote I have read from academics declares McCain doomed. But is there really a scientific basis for these dire predictions? Or are the political scientists just playing hunches based on conventional wisdom?

My own science-like observation about troubled campaigns doesn’t go very much past the iron law that bad news travels fast. The McCain campaign found out quickly how true this is. John Weaver told the press that a member of his family heard the bad news before he could relay it personally. But the speed of the transmission of bad news does not necessarily tell us much about the long-term consequences of a campaign’s travails.

The bad news beleaguering the campaign might be the harbinger of positive change. Long-time political strategist Charlie Black (a political science graduate of the University of Florida) has been pitching this theory for the past week. “They’re starting over and he’s got as good a chance as anybody else,” Black said of McCain to the Associated Press. Years ago, when I was a young and impatient pollster, it would drive me nuts when Charlie would say things like this. But with the experience of the years, I am coming around to Black’s point of view. The bad news is never as bad as it seems. This isn’t faint hope speaking. It’s hard-nosed observation of reality over the years.

Black may find some support among Thom’s students. One has proposed a “Principle of the Fragility of all Good Things” which holds that most things in the world around us are unstable, but they tend to persist in this state. So instability is stable while stability is fragile. Maybe it’s the well-funded campaigns with no staff turnover that should be worried most.
Their ships may be the ones that sink.


Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.