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Beware of the explanations

We are entering the season of explanations. Before and after the election, we will be treated to a bewildering panoply of analyses purporting to explain why it turned out the way it did. Most of those arguments will tell us as much about the analyst’s personal predispositions as they do about the election.

We are entering the season of explanations. Before and after the election, we will be treated to a bewildering panoply of analyses purporting to explain why it turned out the way it did. Most of those arguments will tell us as much about the analyst’s personal predispositions as they do about the election.

Beware in particular of mono-causal explanations. I hear them already in questions. “Is this election about the war or the economy?”  “Will money be decisive this year?”  “Does incumbency no longer count?”

Too often political analysis purports to uncover the one true cause of election results. However, any story that focuses on a single cause is likely to be so incomplete as to be fundamentally wrong.

Is the Mississippi River really the Ohio or really the Missouri River? In fact the Mississippi derives its might from being the confluence of two great rivers. So too the anti-Republican wave now sweeping across the country has gained force precisely because it has brought together disparate forces. Dissatisfaction with the war is central. So is an economy squeezing voters between rising prices and stagnant incomes. The Republican culture of corruption — whether in the form the cronyism that brought us Katrina, the auction of public policy to Abramoff or the repugnant immorality of former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — added force to the wave. Trying to disentangle these factors is akin to attempting to separate the waters of the Ohio from those of the Missouri once they have both spilled into the Mississippi. 

Nevertheless, the national mood by itself will not determine the results. Each contest reflects a unique mix of short and long-term forces, national tides and district or state dynamics.

An exclusive focus on any one of those factors is misleading. French historian Fernand Braudel conceptualized the forces driving history at three levels: structure, conjuncture and event. Structure refers to long term, deep-seated forces like climate or economic system. Conjunctures are medium term notions like economic cycles, while events are the unpredictable contingencies of daily life.

By analogy, we should look at elections in the same multilevel way.

Structural dynamics count for a great deal more than most observers assume. Even in an “anti-incumbent year,” like 1994, 91 percent of House incumbents secured reelection. Incumbency matters. However, incumbency works differently for a Governor in a state beset by economic problems than it does for an incumbent Democratic House member.

Long-term partisanship is another central structural factor. In most races, 90 percent or more of the Democrats will vote for their party’s candidate while a similar proportion of Republicans will cast ballots for their nominee. In some places though, more Republicans will defect than Democrats, sealing GOP defeats. In Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, the dynamics of partisan polarization will leave Republican incumbents suffering.

Conjunctural realities include the war, the state of the economy, and the culture of corruption arising from the GOP’s absolute power. All three matter, though not every candidate feels the impact the same way or to the same extent.

Events dominate our thinking about elections — the line at the debate, the creative ad, the foolish statement to the press. We normally err by placing too much emphasis on the day-to-day battle. Nevertheless, events can play a dispositive role. It is difficult to imagine George Allen in such dire straits absent his series of deceptive and bigoted comments.

Adequate explanations of electoral outcomes must take into account the interplay of a variety of circumstances at all three levels.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.