Sometimes we political scientists can get a bit too sure of ourselves. I went around telling everyone I knew (including my classes) that Mitt Romney was going to be the nominee of the party and all this mishigas about 9-9-9 and racist named hunting sites and whatnot was the opening act for the big show… the coronation of the former Massachusetts governor by a Republican establishment that usually gets what it wants from the nominating process.
That may still happen. But I wonder if we haven’t entered a time in our political life where novelty matters as much as predictability… an era where the “noise” in our statistical models begin to carry more weight than the models themselves?
There are certain times where the social and political world are in such upheaval and parties are so fragmented that party establishments can’t control the process (see Goldwater ’64 or McGovern ’72). But I’m starting to wonder whether we’re simply living in an age where novelty and newness have a cultural currency they didn’t previously have.
As an Internet scholar, I naturally draw things back to the Internet, particularly Facebook in my case. On Facebook, the lingua franca of political talk is the sharing of a link. Shared links on Facebook tend to gather more likes if they carry “high negative or positive valence” in that they elicit strong emotions. As such, the ability of a political campaign to surge or fall because of a “rupture” in the normal operation of a campaign is not created, but exacerbated by social media.
Newt Gingrich’s chiding of Juan Williams and John King in successive South Carolina debates was the very high valence clip that spreads through Facebook and other social media like wildfire.
Does the rise of social media create a new age in presidential politics where the ability to create high valence moments matter more than a candidate’s resume? It’s hard to see Mitt Romney creating high valence moments (except by accident). As such are there dangers ahead for him? Particularly if Florida’s delegates ultimately get apportioned proportionately?
You can still make a case for the “demography is destiny” argument. A social conservative won Iowa. A moderate won New Hampshire. A marginally southern candidate won South Carolina. A more centrist, broad-appeal candidate is going to will Florida. I might have predicted this all along by just looking at demographics or at the very least party ID in each state. But I’m suspicious that there is more unpredictability ahead for this race.