Not a single Republican vote has yet been cast in this year's primaries - the Iowa caucuses are on January 3rd - and yet we've already seen enough twists and turns of fortune to fill a potboiler by Dan Brown (the quality of debate has certainly been a good match for Brown's prose).
Every time a new front-runner bubbles to the top of this volatile brew, we - that is, observers and commentators - reach for the familiar vocabulary of political campaigns to explain it. Perry has 'momentum'. Romney hasn't 'sealed the deal'. Gingrich is in touch with the voters' anger. Huntsman hasn't made his case properly. We find the familiar causes and effects, make our diagnoses, and put together a narrative.
I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's worth remembering, as we head into voting season, that much of what we're describing is random fluctuation. Candidates rise and fall, sometimes, for no reason other than that they are rising and falling. Small rises in poll ratings can be measuring effects, rather than significant events. Much of what happens during the campaign will be irrelevant or unnoticed by all but us nerdy few, who will proceed to make more of it than it deserves.
I was reminded of this when reading a wonderful piece by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, on Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who has spent a lifetime detailing the various errors we all routinely make as we attempt to make sense of the world. Lewis was leafing through the papers of Kahneman's long-time research partner, Amos Tversky, when he came across this letter from Bill James, a baseball expert, maverick thinker, and big influence on Billy Beane, the subject of Lewis's book:
“Baseball men, living from day to day in the clutch of carefully metered chance occurrences, have developed an entire bestiary of imagined causes to tie together and thus make sense of patterns that are in truth entirely accidental,” James wrote. “They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.” It wasn’t just baseball he was writing about, James continued. “I think that the randomness of fate applies to all of us as much as baseball men, though it might be exacerbated by the orderliness of their successes and failures.”
Link to Lewis.