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Friday, January 18, 2008
Philosopher Kings and the 40-20-40 Nation

The famed Greek philosopher Plato, wrote in the Republic:

"Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,... nor, I think, will the human race."

Of course, the philosophers have not become kings, nor have the cities had rest from evils, but I think most of us understand that perhaps Plato was indulging himself in a little occupational bias. He was a philosopher and so he felt that philosophers were best equipped to govern; it's a quite natural conceit.

There is a longstanding theory about presidential elections in the United States. The theory is that no matter whom the Democrats nominate they will get 40% of the people to vote for them, and no matter whom the Republicans nominate they will get 40% of the people to vote for them, and so the real election comes down to who can win that 20% slice in the middle who are capable of going either way.

And indeed, this 40-20-40 theory seems pretty well borne out by recent history. Here is the percentage of the overall vote gained by the second-place finisher in the last 10 elections:

John Kerry: 48.3%
Al Gore: 48.4%
Bob Dole: 40.7%
George Bush, Sr.: 37.4% (Perot factor)
Michael Dukakis: 45.6%
Walter Mondale: 40.6%
Jimmy Carter: 41.0%
Gerald Ford: 48.0%
George McGovern: 37.5%
Hubert Humphrey: 42.7%

Other than 1992, when Perot mixed things up by getting about 19% of the vote, and 1972 when George McGovern imploded, the loser almost always ended up getting 40%. If the Democrats pulled Jimmy Carter out of mothballs this November, he's still get 40. If the Republicans asked Bush Sr to run again, he'd break two score.

So the 40-20-40 theory looks pretty good to me. Richard Nixon, who appeared on more Republican tickets than anybody in history, summarized his political advice as "run to the center as soon as you lock up the nomination". So whence comes the notion that candidates who appeal to independents, who make up the overwhelming amount of that crucial 20% slice, are bad for either party?

Answer: From the philosopher kingmakers. Rush Limbaugh has been known to pooh-pooh the notion that we are a 40-20-40 nation. His theory is that elections are won by whichever party's base shows up. But this is simply wrong, and it's dangerous for Republicans at the current time to listen to this nonsense.

George McGovern is the perfect illustration of this. You could not have a more perfect candidate for the Democratic base. McGovern was going to end the war in Vietnam, which was the issue that animate liberals of that generation like no other. He was the perfect candidate for the new left, running on a platform that was easily if somewhat unfairly satirized as "Acid, Amnesty and Abortion".

And he got crushed. McGovern became the first major party presidential candidate to not even carry his home state. He lost New York by 17 percentage points.

Candidates that fire up the base can win, but only in the right times and right circumstances. Ronald Reagan would have lost and lost badly in 1964; that was a horrible election for the Republican Party. FDR would have gotten crushed by Reagan had he come along in 1984, or by Hoover in 1928.

So why does Rush Limbaugh not understand this? Well, as Orwell observed, it is awfully hard to get a man to believe something if his paycheck depends on him not believing it. Rush and Laura and Hugh and all those guys make a living revving up the base. That is a valuable part of the team effort, and we've needed them in 2000 and 2004.

But the guys whose job it is to rev the base are prone to the same occupational bias that Plato was. Naturally they see their job as the most important. But elections are not won by energizing the base.

And the notion that the radioheads won't have anything to energize the base with is absurd to begin with. For the Donkeys it's either Hill or Obama in the fall; you don't think the base is going to show up to prevent that?

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