Abraham Lincoln never used the term “lifelong learner.” But the largely self-taught Lincoln was clearly both an advocate and a practitioner. “I do not think much of a man,” he once said, “who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Lincoln was also no stranger to the craft of politics — and, indeed, to winning races with far less than a majority of the votes cast, something we saw happen multiple times in this year’s North Carolina primaries. I think Lincoln’s insight about continuous learning is worth keeping in mind in the wake of Super Tuesday.
No matter how many elections you’ve watched or participated in, you should always be prepared for surprising outcomes and new learning opportunities. Here are some of the lessons I’ve drawn from the 2020 primaries to date.
First, don’t put much stock in polls taken long before an election. Not only can intervening events change the political dynamics substantially, but also most voters aren’t political junkies.
Early on, they aren’t paying close attention. If polled, many will respond primarily to the names they recognize. Such responses may not accurately reflect what voters will be thinking as they begin to pay closer attention. Even for those who do have a real preference among primary candidates months before the balloting begins, the preference may well be a weak one.
Joe Biden was initially a strong, albeit gaffe-prone, frontrunner. Then he was a weak gaffe-prone frontrunner. Then he was a former frontrunner. After Iowa and New Hampshire, he was a zombie. Now, after Super Tuesday, he’s back to being a (gaffe-prone) frontrunner.
To some extent, Biden’s cycle of transformations reflected events in the news cycle. But they can also be interpreted as a reminder that many people wait until the end to make up their minds. When it comes to making predictions, political junkies should consider adopting a similar practice.
Second, the “big money controls our politics” crowd has lost a lot of credibility in recent years, and for good reason. Donald Trump and his supporters were vastly outspent by Hillary Clinton and her supporters in 2016. He won, anyway.
So far this year, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and managed only to keep some campaign staffers working and media companies flush with ad revenue. Down the ballot, quite a few North Carolina candidates won their primaries or got into runoffs despite being outspent substantially by otherwise lackluster opponents.
It is certainly the case that political candidates must raise a significant amount of money in order to be competitive. Politics is about communication. Whether you buy media, earn media, or produce your own media, there is a cost. There is a threshold below which a viable campaign is impossible.
Like just about everything else in life, however, campaign spending has diminishing returns. Bloomberg’s operation in North Carolina was massive — mind-boggling in its scope and expense, truly. And it was, in retrospect, a foolish waste of resources.
Third, early voting is risky. Shortly before Super Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer dropped out of the Democratic race for president — after tens of thousands of North Carolinians had already cast early votes for them. Many other voters in other states did the same thing. The vast majority would have voted for someone else if they had known their first choice wasn’t just a longshot candidate but a former one.
I don’t oppose offering early voting as a convenient alternative. Through a bizarre mix of propaganda, hype, and social pressure, however, advocates have made early voting into a fetish. Here’s a better message to communicate: vote early if you think you might have trouble making it to the polls on Election Day. Otherwise, you’re better off waiting. You’ll be able to react to late-breaking news. You’ll be less likely to cast a vote you’ll regret.
Finally, for many of North Carolina’s highest-profile races, the March primaries weren’t competitive. The lessons they’ll teach will come in November.