The conventional wisdom is that anybody who wins a presidential election is a political genius but are they really? Winning a general election is much more about the fundamentals than anything else, political scientists have very solid models for this that even worked in 2016 (there was just limited data in some states, not outright contradictory data). You can suck and still win that if the fundamentals are right. Winning a primary is much more difficult and political scientists don’t really have very solid models for that, but it’s difficult mainly because it’s always sort of a clusterfuck. You’re asking voters to make a political decision with the most pertinent piece of information–party affiliation–rendered irrelevant. It’s a hard decision to make, and it’s not uncommon for them to turn on fairly fluky stuff. The Dean Scream. Jimmy Carter’s entire campaign. Nixonian spin that Muskie cried once. Whatever the hell was going on in 2016. You can usually make some sense out of it in retrospect but the reality is that nominations turn on things that are fairly random, which is why it really is up to party elites to winnow out people who are flat-out unacceptable (as Republicans largely declined to do with Trump).

So it’s entirely possible you get the combination of someone whose shtick catches fire at just the right time to lead to a fluke wave into a nomination, and then wins the presidency based on favorable fundamentals. Well, more than possible, it’s happened more than once, even before the modern presidential system. But considering who won last year, you clearly don’t have to be a genius of any sort to get to the White House. If Trump were a genius (or even just sorta good), he could have splintered Democrats off the bat by giving Schumer and Pelosi the infrastructure bill they wanted. If he were even moderately good at this, he’d issue a veto threat against anything resembling the Republicans’ ripoff tax bill. Because it’s also a bill that lets Democrats run against him like they ran against Mittens.

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