By now, you've heard this line: “Every Republican who has won both New Hampshire and South Carolina has gone on to claim the nomination."
Winning is better than losing, to be sure, and it's fair to say that winning New Hampshire and South Carolina is better than losing them. But are we overreacting to this piece of information?
It's clearly possible for someone to win both of these states and still lose the nomination. As I write this, Donald Trump has accumulated 67 delegates by winning these contests, but that's still just a fraction of the 1,237 delegates he would need to become the Republican nominee. I'll gladly concede that Trump is the likely nominee, but should we then just call off the other elections?
As they say in sports, "this is why we play the games."
And speaking of the world of sports, it's fair to say that there are more ridiculous and spurious correlations than the one being bandied around about New Hampshire and South Carolina. Namely, the Redskins' winning a home game was said to correlate with the incumbent president’s party holding the White House — until it didn't.
This assumption fits into the category of being something that is not entirely irrelevant, but also not entirely predictive. As such, the New Hampshire + South Carolina = victory equation is more analogous to the notion that home teams are more likely to win Game 7 of the World Series.
This feels like common sense. After all, why wouldn't home field advantage help boost a team facing the biggest game of their lives? It also jibes with modern history. In nine of the last 10 occasions, the home team has won Game 7.
The one occasion it wasn't true? In 2014, the San Francisco Giants won Game 7 in Kansas City. That was also the last time a Game 7 has been played. (Good thing you didn't use that statistic to place a big bet on the Royals, right?)
This is a pretty good analogy to the NH + SC = RNC theory. It's something that sounds good — and is true ... until it's not.
You don't even have to go back very far to see why it's stupid to allow your political predictions to be influenced by these amusing, but potentially misleading, statistics.
A few examples:
- History told us that if an incumbent couldn't get above 50 percent of the vote in a primary, he couldn't win a runoff. But Thad Cochran did it in 2014, by turning out African-American voters.
- It was said to be unlikely that three consecutive presidents could win two terms — and yet Obama won his.
- It was said, too, that a president couldn't get re-elected with an unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent — until Obama did that, too. It turns out the trend and trajectory is more important than the number.
- History seemed to suggest Virginia always elects a governor of the opposite party of the president — until Terry McAuliffe was elected on the heels of Obama’s re-election.
- It was also said that a majority leader hadn’t lost a primary since the 1890s — until it happened to Eric Cantor.
All of these bits of trivia were mentioned ad nauseam by political commentators (including yours truly), and all of them were misleading. Political pundits love to pull these things out because they're interesting and colorful — and because they also signal that the commentator has some historical knowledge.
This is especially true when it comes to talking about presidential primaries, which — in the grand scheme of things — are a relatively new invention. They've been around a long time, but have only assumed their place of importance in recent years. (In the old days, political bosses and conventions sorted this stuff out). When you subtract the years when an incumbent president negated the importance of a nominating primary, you're left with a relatively small sample size from which to draw conclusions.
The bottom line is this: We've all heard the line about "lies, damned lies, and statistics." This fits into the classification of things that are interesting bits of trivia, but not at all predictive of future events.
Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at The Daily Caller and author of the book "Too Dumb to Fail." Follow him on Twitter at @MattKLewis.
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