Gerald the Olympic Night Bowler, and the American Election

Everyone, meet Gerald. You may think Gerald is an imaginary friend, but I prefer to consider him more of a metaphorical comrade. Gerald has long represented our country in the Summer Olympics in a somewhat obscure sport called “night bowling.” It is much like the bowling-alley type of bowling that you and I know, except that it takes place outside, on uncertain terrain, and with minimal lighting.

A serious student of the sport, Gerald spends his evenings and weekends studying up on how to become a better night bowler. His performance follows a highly unusual pattern that he has not been able to transcend since his first Olympics Games (the 1984 Los Angeles games, which he reminds me took place after the boycott of 1980).

See, whenever it has been so dark out that Gerald even see the pins he is supposed to hit, he has been able to walk away with the gold medal. This happened in 1988, 2000, and most recently as 2008. But in other years, when there is just enough daylight left to make out the silhouettes of the far-off pins, Gerald not only does not medal, but his final score is lower than it would have been otherwise.

This doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t. Gerald can’t explain it himself, but he is quick to point out that this his performance in the Olympics has predicted another once-every-four-years contest: the American presidential election.

See, in addition to being a world-class night bowler, Gerald is also an armchair politics junkie. And what Gerald means is that every year that he has won the gold, the election has gone on as expected. But every year Gerald has lost, namely 1984, 1996, and 2004, the same years that he had enough daylight to see the pins he was supposed to hit, were the same years that a major political party ran a unsuccessful campaign to defeat an incumbent president.

(I admit Gerald can be confusing sometimes.)

In other words, in a year when both major parties hold a primary election, there is no telling which side will win. But in a year when only one party holds a primary, because the defending party will just renominate the current president, the pattern has been that the challenging party will lose the election. This is despite the fact that the challenging party can (and often does) strategically pick a candidate whose strengths match up with the current president’s weaknesses.

Imagine political parties as night bowlers and the candidate they have to defeat as bowling pins. When challenging parties bowl without seeing the pins, they do alright. But when they can see their target, they fail more miserably than they would bowling blind.

Gerald, of course, has the numbers to prove it.

Reagan’s first win was with 91% of the electoral college, and in his second improved to a whopping 98%. Clinton had 370 electoral votes his first go-around, and jumped up to 379 for the sequel. Bush Jr. improved on his down-to-the-hanging-chad 50.3% win in 2000 to a surprising 53.2% in 2004.

The only exception was Bush Sr., who Gerald considers a fluke that just tried to ride the wave of 1980’s Reagan-mania into the 1990’s.

Anyhow, I happen to be at Gerald’s place for a quick visit. Either because he lost the gold medal this year or because of his idea, makes an upfront claim. “Barack Obama will win this election, no questions asked.”

I ask Gerald why he thought this was. He pauses for a second, and then asks me, “well, you work with youth, right?”

“Yeah, part-time. Why?”

“What do you tell a junior higher who thinks he is all rebellious and what-not?”

“Usually something like ‘do not root your identity by what you are against, but instead by what you are for.’ Help them to embrace something positive.”

“Exactly. If a fourteen-year-old can understand that, men and women three times as old trying to lead the country should be able to as well.” Gerald then pulled two books from off his bookshelf, one being Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Romney’s No Apology. “Have you read either of these?”

I shake my head. I thought being halfway through the audiobook of Dreams From My Father was pretty good for being an informed citizen.

Gerald continues. “Well, all you need to do is look at the titles. See Obama’s book? He is talking about something positive. He’s talking about hope and the American Dream, and what he thinks that looks like. Maybe is right, maybe he is wrong, but definitely he is talking about something positive.”

I ask about Romney’s book.

“Well, look at the back flap. See the first sentence, ‘On his first presidential visit to address the European nations, President Obama felt it necessary to apologize for America’s international power.’ The title of Romney’s book, the premise of the entire thing, is less pro-Romney and more anti-Obama. And you cannot deny that this entire time, Romney’s campaign has been more about defeating Barack than about electing Mitt.”

Before I have a chance to agree, and mention something about  Gerald goes on.”That was John Kerry’s problem in 2004. Bob Dole’s in 1996. Walter Mondale’s in 1984. They, or at least their parties, were all so obsessed with defeating the giant that they forgot they were giants themselves.”

But one thing does not line up with Gerald’s hypothesis: rather than losing ground on Obama, Romney is running a much tighter race than McCain did in 2008. I ask Gerald how he explains this.

“Well, first of all, the governor has been moving all over the place in a way McCain was too principled to try. You never know when he will be moderate Mitt or when he will be right-wing Romney. That opportunism is fine if you want to win an election, but the coalition he will be governing with is going to become quickly disillusioned.”

Gerald shots a quick glance at me to make sure I am keeping track, and then pulls out some of Nate Silver’s charts from the 538 blog. “Second of all, even if it has been a close race, Obama has been solidly in charge of this thing the entire time. In fact, the only thing that swung the election towards Romney,” and here Gerald points to a swift downturn in October, “was not anything Romney did as much as it was an overconfident Obama falling asleep at the wheel during the first debate.”

I try to make sense of this. “So what you’re saying that campaigns should avoid pushing out attack ads.”

“Not quite,” Gerald responds. “If a candidate got elected without having to overcome some outrageous criticism, I would be worried about his or her ability to maintain authority once in office. Attack ads have their place, but they should not be the bread-and-butter of a campaign.”

Gerald continues. “Ultimately, the problem is that when a opponent bases their identity as the anti-identity of their rival, the opponent remains one step behind. The opponent gives up the power to define themselves over to their rival, and the rival now has the ability to define himself and the opponent.”

What began as an argument is quickly becoming a rant, as Gerald raises his voice and starts pounding the table. “And this isn’t good for the country. Debate succumbs to polarization! Options devolve into stalemates! Inspiring rhetoric is drowned out by cynicism…”

“Gerald, I get it!” I interrupt, trying to calm him down. “So, the political parties do better in the presidential elections when they do not know who their future rival is, because then they do not have the temptation of basing their platform off the incumbent but instead are free to be themselves?”

“Uh…yes.”

I try to change the subject. “So, what does this have to do with the fact you lost the gold medal this year?”

At this time, Gerald asks me to leave.

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Gerald the Olympic Night Bowler, and the American Election

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