Mark Shields: Cracking the code of campaign-speak

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

“Do you ever get the feeling,” asked humorist Robert Orben, “that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” But even after real, live Americans actually do vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, somehow we always seem to be left with more winners than losers. Because you, dear readers, are busy enough, your faithful correspondent offers this translation of what the predictable statements of campaign 2016 do in truth mean.

Predictable statement No. 1: We were clear from the first day: This race in not a dash. It’s a marathon. Delegates are the name of the game, and these first two states represent a mere 53 out of 2,472 convention delegates. 98 percent of the delegates are yet to be chosen. We’re in this for the long haul.

What it means: A spokesperson is speaking about a candidate who finished out of the money in the actual voting in both Iowa and New Hampshire:

Predictable statement No. 2: Iowa and New Hampshire, with more farms than minorities, are notAmerica in 2016. The biggest city between them has fewer people than Gilbert, Arizona, or Boise, Idaho. What can anyone say in defense of a place where their idea of wine and cheese is Velveeta and muscatel?
What it means: A nationally prominent East Coast pundit was dead wrong in his predictions about who would win the first two contests and is now trying to save face.

Predictable statement No. 3: When ordinary, hard-working Americans who take both their politics and their responsibility seriously dare to defy the disdainfulness of their social superiors and brave February’s frozen tundra to vote in such impressive numbers, America should listen closely. Because they are saying, “We can do better.”

What it means: A TV commentator is proud to have correctly predicted the winner.

A reality check for everyone: These first two states do in fact decide who will not be elected president. In the last 11 national elections, no presidential candidate who competed in Iowa and New Hampshire and who did not win one or both states has ever gone on to win the White House in November.

Every candidate, no matter how far back in the field he ends up, insists that, somehow, he has done “better than expected.” These campaigns must really set their sights very low. How else could a miserable, eighth-place finish still qualify as “better than expected”? I will happily wear the bumper sticker of any candidate who confesses that he actually did “worse than expected.”

A closing note: Running for public office, we should remember, is a very human experience. Most people who run for president are individuals already with records of significant accomplishments. Many have been successful governors or senators who have led important causes or written serious laws; others are former military leaders who have led troops into battle. But as we see again, most who do run lose. It’s all voluntary, of course, but there are families and loved ones who feel the pain of such public defeat.

“It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out and run for any public office,” Robert Strauss, the late Democratic leader, wisely observed. “But the only thing that’s tougher than announcing for office is withdrawing from a race, because when you drop out you are saying that you are quitting and that you’re beaten.” Losing is almost always painfully public and publicly painful.

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