Elections Are Not that Complicated

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William of Ockham

Never mind John McCain and Barack Obama. When it comes to the true winner this week the big mo really belongs to the Big O, which in this case means Ockham. Why are the wheels coming off the Hillary bus? Ockham. Why did Romney sink, Rudy fade and McCain soar? Ockham. Ockham himself, of course, would have to take our word for all this, since he's been dead since 1347.

Ockham was known in his time as William of Ockham, the prolific English philosopher most famous for one big hit: the eponymous Ockham's razor. A champion of simplicity, Ockham made it his mission to argue that things should never be made more complicated than they have to be. If there are a lot of ways to explain a phenomenon, slice your answer as finely as you can.

For six and a half centuries, Ockham's razor has demonstrated its power across all disciplines. We figured out that infinitesimal viruses existed long before we could see them, simply by filtering the bigger bacteria out of infectious fluid and finding that it still made lab rats sick. Economics relies on Ockham too. The very best way to increase tax revenue is — sorry to say — to increase taxes. And criminal lawyers absolutely love Ockham: Motive, opportunity and your fingerprints on a weapon don't always mean you did it, but they do often enough that, odds are, you're going away for a reason.

This year, more than most, Ockham is driving politics too. The decline of the Hillary Clinton candidacy has taken political wisemen largely by surprise. How could the Clinton machine — the one that was supposed to mow down the opposition on its way to the inevitable restoration of the family bloodline — come apart so? Bill's shivving Barack in South Carolina looked bad, but wasn't it a clever play to the cheap seats that would attract more votes than it would lose? Hillary's tears in New Hampshire rusted the iron lady a little, but wasn't that just a brilliantly tactical softening of her image at the precise moment it was called for? Maybe. But maybe she just got tired and cried. And maybe Bill just said something dumb. And if the Clinton campaign crashes and burns, maybe she was just another politician with name recognition and a lot of money who ran for President and never connected. There's far more precedent for that — ask Presidents Dewey or Stevenson or Humphrey or Thompson or Romney — than there is for a less parsimonious explanation.

The same holds true for the rise of McCain. The forces arrayed against him were formidable. Rudy's name, Fred's charm, Mitt's money. McCain was out of cash and out of friends and is flat out despised by the hard right. By what remarkable means, then, has he arrived at the brink of his party's nomination? Well, people kind of like him. He's smart, usually reasonable, often funny, sometimes goofy. So voters, you know, vote for him. For this you need Tim Russert?

Pundits make similar mistakes when they're trying to explain non-presidential elections. Why do voters ticket-split, choosing a President from one party and a Representative or Senator from another? Perhaps it's a clever way to preserve the creative tension of divided government, check the excesses of any one party and send a veiled warning to everyone in Washington that it's time for a little bipartisanship. Or perhaps people simply choose the candidates they like. Campaign managers overthink things too. Consider the time wasted in war rooms parsing the molecular difference between, say, "Ready for Change" and "Change We Can Believe In," a distinction without a difference if ever there was one. Voters make their decisions at a far more visceral level than that. When they're surly — as they are now — they look for a credible candidate who's as different as possible from the incumbent who made the existing mess. When they're happy — as they were, for example, in 1988 — they look for someone as similar as possible. The precise placement of the incantatory word "change" on a campaign poster is too nuanced even to be noticed, let alone to sway a vote.

Electoral democracy will never be the most Ockham-friendly thing, nor is it designed to be. Go in search of true political parsimony and you wind up with Putin's one-party dominance or Hussein's sham elections or North Korea's 50 years of dynastic nuttiness. But somewhere between the chaos and complexity of American elections and the stultifying simplicity of phony elections is the serenity and sanity of rational elections. Cue the balloons — quietly.