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The Five Rules of Politics The Five Rules of Politics

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The Five Rules of Politics

These are the constants in politics that hold true, election after election.

One rule of politics: strategists are never as smart or incompetent as they seem. They can only control so much.(Points of Light/Flickr)

photo of Reid Wilson
August 7, 2013

After graduating from college, I applied for a job in Atlantic Media's customer relations department. The human resources folks decided, correctly, that I would be spectacularly bad at the job. Instead, by happy circumstance, they sent me to The Hotline, where the executive assistant had just given her two weeks' notice.

From those first days working for Chuck Todd to a year under Amy Walter and the following three years as Hotline's editor in chief, I've spent the vast majority of my professional career getting to the Watergate at 6 a.m., combing through dozens of newspapers a day and learning from some of the smartest political writers and analysts in the business. Today is the last day I'll be surrounded by our collection of yard signs that span the years between George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign and this year's Virginia governor's race.

I've been fortunate enough to cover politics at a time of dynamic change. Both parties are undergoing internal revolutions. The country's demographics are redrawing political boundaries. Technology is advancing so rapidly that the way to run a successful campaign changes on a yearly basis. Most consequentially, the legislative process is evolving.


But cycle after election cycle, a few rules have been constant. Here's what I've learned during my years at The Hotline:

He who understands the rules will win. On February 5, 2008, Hillary Clinton won New Jersey's Democratic presidential primary by 112,000 votes. The same day, Barack Obama won Idaho's caucuses by 13,000 votes. Clinton won 11 more delegates from New Jersey than Obama did. Obama won 12 more delegates from Idaho than Clinton did.

Throughout the 2008 primaries, the Obama team simply understood the Democratic Party's nominating rules better than the Clinton team did. Caucus states yielded a greater opportunity for the insurgent to bolster his delegate advantage, and in the end, delegates would decide the nomination, not raw votes. In 2012, Mitt Romney's team understood they could win enough delegates in winner-take-all states like Florida to secure the Republican nomination. In the general election, Obama's team didn't bother conducting national polls; after all, the electoral college would choose a president, and only those states in the toss-up category mattered.

Time and again, the campaign that demonstrates it understands the rules of the game better than its opponents, and allocates resources accordingly, will win an election.

All politics, and all politicians, are local. Advances in targeting and voter data mean the cartography behind Congressional redistricting has become more science than art. There are fewer competitive districts than ever; the vast majority of seats as they're drawn today will stay safely in Democratic or Republican hands. That means most Congressional elections are decided in primary elections, which by definition feature more partisan electorates. Therefore, a member of Congress who holds one of those seats will always feel pressured to play to the base, rather than to the middle of the electorate.

Politicians intent on seeking re-election will act in their own self interests before they will act in their party's interest. For members of Congress in non-competitive districts, that means following the lead of their most vocal partisans. That's why comprehensive immigration reform has always been such a long shot in the House of Representatives; for Republican activists, a pathway to citizenship is amnesty. That's why entitlement reform, a goal of the Obama administration, is going to face such a difficult path in the Democratic Senate; to Democratic activists, entitlement reform is code for shredding the social safety net.

Both issues are third rails for partisan activists. While accomplishing something big on immigration or entitlement reform might be good for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party as a whole, it's not good for individual members. And individual members act in their own self interest.

The uber-strategist is a myth. Congratulations to Jim Messina, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, the latest entrants into the pantheon of Uber-Strategists. How are you going to celebrate? The first thing you should do is retire from electoral politics. It's all downhill from here.

Every four years, the people who elect a president are hailed as the brightest strategists of all time, capable of dominating politics. Karl Rove wore the halo. So did James Carville and Paul Begala. But every one of them will admit that winning the presidency is based in some small part on factors out of their control. Messina could only hope that employers began hiring again during the run-up to the 2012 campaign; had the economy remained in the dumps, Mitt Romney would be president today. Rove helmed a campaign that won the electoral college but not the popular vote (See Rule no. 1). Carville and Begala won two races with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Carville and Begala got it right: They never again spearheaded an American campaign. Instead, they became wise men who advise corporations and hit the speaking circuits. Rove tried to stay active through American Crossroads, the conglomerate of Republican mega-donors who spent so much on Senate and House races in 2010 and 2012. When Republicans lost most of those races, Rove became the scapegoat, a label that was completely undeserved (One might think to blame the candidates or the national atmosphere first). The media loves to lionize a winning strategist, but no one is able to win every race.

The only constant is change. Two decades ago, the Democratic Party was in a state of disarray. The party had nominated a series of liberals who lost badly, while warring factions of labor unions and environmentalists fought for the soul of the party. Now, it's the Republican Party's turn to go through the same period of painful, violent introspection. The Democratic coalition today is like the Republican coalition of the 1980s: Largely on the same ideological page, with few outward signs of splintering (Credit, in a strange way, the 2010 midterms, which swept many conservative Democrats out of office).

But Democrats shouldn't celebrate yet: The unassailable electoral coalition that exists today belongs to Barack Obama, a man who will never again be on a ballot. If Democrats nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton in 2016, there's no guarantee Democrats can build the same coalition. They very well might, but the party hasn't proven that yet.

And anyone who tells you they know Clinton is running, or that she's not running, is lying.

Campaigns matter. By most measures, Sens. Jon Tester, Heidi Heitkamp and Dean Heller should be out of a job. Tester and Heitkamp won their seats in states Mitt Romney carried easily, while Heller was one of just three Republicans in the country to win statewide races in states Obama carried. How did they do it? They ran better campaigns than their opponents.

A state's demographic makeup plays an important role in its voting habits. But if demographics and voting patterns made all the difference, Sens. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu would have lost in 2008, when John McCain carried their states; they might lose this time around, but their opponents have to run competent campaigns first.

Those five rules, which I learned in my years at The Hotline, explain why President Obama won a second term, why Democrats control the Senate and why Republicans control the House. My deepest thanks to all those who have taught me over the years, and to the readers who care so much about politics. Without all of you, I couldn't have held the best job in the world.

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