The Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant have defined the country’s two major political parties for more than 130 years. But, the most important animal may be a black swan. Need to Know’s Jeff Greenfield explains the black swan theory and how it has affected many elections throughout the years.
Finally, it was more than 130 years ago that cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the symbols that have defined the two parties ever since: the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. But this year, and in fact back across many election years, the most significant animal may be…a swan. Specifically, a black swan.
As coined by author Nassim Taleb in his books, “Fooled by Randomness” and then “The Black Swan,” it refers to a highly unlikely, unanticipated event that, when it happens produces hugely consequential results.
Like the global financial meltdown just weeks before the 2008 presidential election. That “black swan” had a huge political impact as well. Remember: within two days of each other in September 2008, Lehmann Brothers collapsed; and AIG was saved from extinction by an $85 billion bailout. As a result, the stock market lost hundreds and hundreds of points.
With that, every assumption of the 2008 campaign, every premise that had governed two years of that campaign, was rendered “inoperative.” Many Republicans still believe that, but for that meltdown, McCain might have won–or at least, made it a lot closer.
But it’s hardly the only example. Again and again, random, sometimes shocking events have reshaped campaigns at every level.
Most dramatic was the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, moments after he declared victory in the California primary. We’ll never know if he would have won the nomination or election–but he was clearly in contention; his death made the nomination of Hubert Humphrey inevitable.
Sudden death has reshaped other campaigns: most recently, in 2002, when Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash 11 days before Election Day. Former Vice President Walter Mondale replaced him on the ticket, and lost to Norm Coleman; giving the Republicans a crucial Senate seat.
But it’s not just death that arrives on the Black Swan. Go back to 1960, when Richard Nixon was actively competing for the black vote against John Kennedy. In late October, Martin Luther King, Jr was arrested in Georgia on a highly questionable parole violation, and locked up in a rural jail; fears for his safety rose. On successive days, John Kennedy called King’s wife, and Robert Kennedy called a local judge to ask about bail.
When King was released, his father–an influential black minister who had endorsed Nixon–reportedly because he feared a Catholic in the White House–switched his support to JFK. When you look at how close the vote was in key states with large black populations–one per cent in New Jersey, two per cent in Michigan, a virtual tie in Illinois–it’s not too much to say that those phone calls elected John Kennedy.
What Black Swans might show up this fall? A European economic collapse? A bad stumble on the campaign trail? Something much more grim?
That’s the whole point about black swans…you can’t predict them. But you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.”