I am not a political junkie. My understanding of the candidates is shaped by an astonishingly small amount of data: a few interviews I hear on NPR, a few commentaries in the Wall Street Journal (especially Peggy Noonan's sly digs at just about everyone) and one or two things written by the candidates themselves and their legions of advisors. Which is to say, I'm pretty typical of the American electorate.
What should last night's caucuses in Iowa tell us about human nature?
Humans are exceedingly difficult to predict. People mourn the loss of spontaneity in politics and politicians, what with all the exhaustive polling and focus-groups and what-not. You would think the election had already been decided, listening to the press and the commentators. Everyone was saying Iowa was an exceedingly close race, so I expected to see photo-finish between Clinton and Obama. And then . . . Barack walks away with 25% more votes than Hillary (38% to 30%). And the last person the Clinton machine expected trouble from was John Edwards, who nonetheless stole second from them. You might think Hillary had the most humiliating defeat last night, but actually I think that title belongs to the pollsters and commentators. We would all do well to remember: no matter how authoritative they sound, predictions are routinely wrong. Let's all say it again, because we're gonna forget it inside of two days: nobody can predict the future.
Because of uncertainty, hope springs eternal. I always looked at crowded presidential fields and marvelled at the triumph of hope. I probably couldn't list half of the candidates from memory, on either side of the aisle. What in the world makes someone like John Kucinick believe he has a snowball's chance in Washington of becoming president? Well, see my first point, above. Stranger things have happened. And political egos need only the slightest of encouragement to believe they could become the most important leader in the free world.
Humans are duplicitous, or don't understand themselves, or both. How could the polls be so far wrong? For the simple fact that people routinely say one thing and then do another. Perhaps they lied: many of speculated that both Clinton and Obama's popularity was inflated by polls, because many more people wanted to be seen as supporting a woman or a black than actually personally supported them. Or perhaps they just misunderstood their own opinions, for better or for worse. Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink pays special tribute to the cognitive powers of the unconscious; we are often the last ones to know what we really think.
In human matters, appearance is everything. (Or is it?) The Clinton campaign had tried to project an air of inevitability, figuring if Hillary looks like the presumptive nominee, she will be the nominee. Hmmm . . . guess it didn't work out that way. Doped up on schadenfreude, I went to her website to see what kind of spin they could put on the Iowa results. Of course, I should have known that the only spin possible was no spin at all: the website completely ignores the results. Just a big "Thank You, Iowa" on the front, and then back to sunshine pump. Let's modify the assertion: appearances are important, but not entirely sufficient. Anyone who lives entirely on appearances, but ignores questions of personal integrity, is likely to take a fall. Anyone who is full of substance but ignores their appearances is either lazy or stupid or both.