When Barry Goldwater, whose father was Jewish, won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, the irrepressible Southern humorist Harry Golden wrote in his weekly Carolina Israelite: “I always knew the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.”
Not me. Maybe it’s just my family background, but I always figured a Jewish president wouldn’t be elected until America was ready for an old-fashioned Jewish socialist from Brooklyn.
Well, that time may be approaching. In case you haven’t heard, the senator from Vermont won this year’s mock presidential election at Western Illinois University. It happened in early November. News travels slowly out there.
That might not sound like a big deal. But this particular mock election program has successfully predicted every single presidential election since 1976. It hasn’t missed once in 40 years.
Of course, winning a schoolyard mock election, even one with a record like Western Illinois University’s, is hardly a guarantee of victory. Consider the famous mock election at Israel’s Blich High School in Ramat Gan. The Blich kids aced every election from 1977 to 2009, including the stunning upsets by Menachem Begin in 1977 and Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. But then they flubbed the outcome in 2013 and again in 2015. No augury is infallible.
On the flip side, it should be noted that the Western Illinois mock election is less random than you might think. The program isn’t a simple show of hands, but an elaborate two-week exercise, run by the university’s Centennial Honors College. Students spend hours reenacting the Iowa caucuses, state primaries, national conventions and Electoral College vote, researching and playing various assigned roles.
It was first developed at the University of Iowa in 1975 by a pair of political science grad students, John Hemingway and Rick Hardy. That first one predicted an improbable victory a year later for dark horse Jimmy Carter. Hardy went on to expand the program as a professor at the University of Missouri, still maintaining a perfect record. Moving to Western Illinois in 2006, he rejoined forces with Hemingway and together they launched the mock election the following year as a major university-wide event. They haven’t made a wrong call yet, though the identities of the running mates and losing candidates aren’t always on the money.
Western Illinois University, an 11,500-student campus, is located downstate in Macomb, 70 miles west of Peoria, near the Iowa state line. In case you’re wondering, it’s not a hotbed of campus radicalism — in fact, it’s ranked ninth most conservative college in Illinois by Niche.com, the college ranking website.
This year’s mock election, which ran from October 20 to November 2, ended up pitting a Sanders-Martin O’Malley ticket against a Republican pairing of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. According to news reports (see here and here), Hillary Clinton won the Super Tuesday primaries, but Sanders then rocketed ahead and reached the Democratic convention with 1,836 delegates to Clinton’s 644. Sanders went on to win the general election in a landslide, taking 404 electoral votes to Bush’s 114.
Of course, this sounds wildly implausible. But the actual polls are just a tad squishy, so surprises are still possible. Here’s what’s going on in the real world: CBS tracking polls released the day after the December 19 Democratic debate show Clinton leading Sanders in Iowa by a mere 5 points, 50% to 45%, within the poll’s 8% margin of error. She also leads in South Carolina by a commanding 67% to 31%. But Sanders leads Clinton in New Hampshire by 14 points, 56% to 42%, with a 7.5% margin of error. O’Malley is a distant third in all three.
The FiveThirtyEight.com website of former New York Times polling guru Nate Silver ran an important analysis on December 18, the day before the debate, of the relative importance of a candidate’s showing in Iowa and in New Hampshire toward clinching the nomination. In the post, titled “Bernie Sanders Can Still Catch Hillary Clinton In Iowa,” FiveThirtyEight staffer Harry Enten looks at 12 primary races since 1980, leaving out incumbent presidents running for reelection. It turns out that the candidate who was leading in polls at this point in December went on to win the actual Iowa caucuses only six times.
It’s all about meeting, beating or falling short of expectations. “We know from past campaigns,” Enten writes, “that candidates who underperform in Iowa tend to do worse than expected in New Hampshire, while those who outperform expectations in Iowa tend to also outperform expectations in the Granite State.” He believes, like most neutral observers, that Clinton “is a near lock for the Democratic nomination, even if she loses the first two states.”
But a narrow win in Iowa would hurt her in New Hampshire and slow her momentum. And she “probably doesn’t want a lengthy primary season against an opponent who has pulled her further to the left” when she needs to pivot toward the center to face the Republicans.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).