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Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in

Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in
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It’s long past time we toss the “lane theory” of primaries into the dustbin of history.

Lane theory holds that candidates are essentially running to attract subsets of voters who have consistently different sets of priorities, ideological or otherwise. Until near the end of the race, claims the theory, candidates are clumped in distinct lanes, trying to defeat the others in their lane to make the final two.

For example, in an early usage of the metaphor, The Washington Post identified three “lanes” in the 2012 Republican primaries: the Tea Party/economic lane, the Tea Party/social lane, and the establishment lane.

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Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds Will anyone from the left realize why Trump won — again? Ratings drop to 55M for final Trump-Biden debate MORE was dubbed the leader in the establishment lane, Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE in Tea Party/social lane and Rick PerryRick PerryIs Social Security safe from the courts? Trump, Biden set for high-stakes showdown President Trump faces Herculean task in first debate MORE in the Tea Party/economic lane.

That year the establishment won big time, with Romney capturing the lead in 42 GOP primaries. Rick Santorum won 11, while plausibly occupying the Tea Party/social lane.

On these results, though, one would have to conclude that the establishment lane was a superhighway, while the social lane was tiny and the economic lane microscopic. Although the Post predicted the winner in the Tea Party/economic lane would capture the nomination, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence in the results that such a lane even existed.

Four years later, in 2015, a different Post analyst didn’t just change lanes, he completely changed the very lanes themselves.

He envisioned five lanes, all different: religious, Tea Party, conservative, moderate/ establishment and libertarian.

But along came Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE and obliterated them all.

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Fast forward to 2019, where lane theorists are at it again, trying to analyze the Democratic primary and, hard as it is to believe, there are apparently more lanes than candidates.

Some posit left and moderate lanes. Others add an establishment lane, an insurgent lane, an experience lane, an electability lane, an educated white liberal lane, a fresh face lane, a women’s lane, a white working-class lane, a youth lane, a Midwestern lane and even an “old white guy” lane versus a “smart woman lawyer” lane.

With some 14 lanes, almost everyone should be a winner.

When lanes are constantly shifting and rarely agreed upon, they aren’t really lanes. Imagine trying to drive on the highway if everyone acted on a different belief about where the lanes were.

But there are empirical, as well as definitional, defects with lane theories.

If the idea has any meaning, or provides any analytical purchase, you would expect voters’ second choices to be in the same lane as their top preference.

They aren’t.

Professors Lynn Vavreck and John Sides examined voting intentions of 6,000 Democrats from mid-October to mid-November.

Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE could occupy several of the above lanes — moderate, experienced, establishment and white male, among others.

Who were the top second choices of Biden voters? Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden All fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown The Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds MORE (I-Vt.) picked up 35 percent of Biden’s support and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAll fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown What do Google, banks and chicken salad have in common? Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit MORE (D-Mass.) garnered 29 percent.

One could argue Sanders and Warren both occupy the progressive left lane, but it’s hard to see what lanes the both of them could also share with Biden.

Do Sanders voters flock to Warren as a second choice? Well, 36 percent do, but 32 percent opt for Biden.

Sanders is the top second-choice of Warren voters (32 percent) but two moderates, Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE, together make up 41 percent of Warren voters’ second choices.

Buttigieg is assigned to the moderate, Midwest, fresh face and young lanes. The second choice of his voters? Thirty percent to Biden and 28 percent to Warren, neither of whom is Midwestern, fresh faced or young, and who seem to inhabit different ideological camps.

In short, lanes tell you nothing. Preferences don’t cohere in some preordained set of lanes and winning doesn’t require dominating a lane.

Next time someone tries to sell you a “lane” explanation, cover your ears and laugh as loudly as you can, to avoid a net loss of knowledge.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.