US election defies conventional wisdom

Alan Fisher is an award-winning correspondent of Al Jazeera who has reported from across the world. One can follow him on Twitter: @AlanFisher

Alan Fisher

Conventional wisdom is a dangerous thing. And if this US election has done anything – it is challenge the idea of how things are and should be.

The phrase was coined and popularised by the Canadian American economist John Kenneth Galbraith who defined it as “a body of ideas of explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field”.  Yet what is not said is that many of these explanations, though widely held, are rarely examined.

From the very beginning, it was clear this election season would be different.  Conventional wisdom tells us momentum in the primary nominating process is important.  Yet the Republicans had three different winners in the first three contests.  While Mitt Romney was trying to build the image of the inevitable nominee, he lost in Iowa, albeit narrowly to Rick Santorum, who won in New Hampshire and then lost in South Carolina to Newt Gingrich.  The idea that no Republican can win the nomination without winning first in South Carolina was challenged by Romney’s eventual triumph.  He did so even though it was thought the liberal positions he adopted while Governor of Massachusetts were considered harmful to his chances with the core of the Republican Party who vote in the early primaries.

The conventional wisdom of Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential pick was that he should go with someone who could help win a swing state, like Senator Rob Portman from Ohio or even Senator Marco Rubio from Florida.  The evidence is that  the VP pick rarely helps win their home state.  The last time that really happened was in 1960 when Lyndon Johnson took Texas for John Kennedy.

Bucking conventional wisdom

There was the alternative idea that Governor Romney must select someone strong on foreign policy to offset his own shortcomings in the area.  He picked Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, someone almost as inexperienced as Romney himself.

Repeatedly, we’ve heard how the high jobless figures hurt Barack Obama; how history suggests that Presidents with such a  high unemployment rates loses.  Yet he remains a narrow favourite to retain the White House.

As we moved to the first debate in Denver, the conventional wisdom and previous experience suggested debates don’t move polls.  People quoted Ronald Reagan’s performance against Jimmy Carter in 1980 which legend now states saw him surge past the President and win the election.  This ignores the fact that Reagan was already ahead in the polls at that time.

It was also claimed by many that Barack Obama was a “great debater” and would turn in a top performance.  Yet, he has never been more than reasonable in debates, and this time around he was poor.  Mitt Romney won, surged in the polls, bucking conventional wisdom.

Now we stand on the threshold of the third and final presidential debate.  It will concentrate on foreign policy. The pundits, the political journalists will tell you that Americans don’t really care about foreign policy and so this will be a big switch off.  A quick flick through the history books and I’m not sure how they arrive at that conclusion.  Harry Truman decided not to seek re-election in 1952 because of the unpopularity of the Korean War, and for a similar reason, only this time over Vietnam,  Lyndon Johnston walked away in 1968.  Richard Nixon won that  largely due to his “secret plan”.  In 1980, Jimmy Carter’s Presidency was fatally undermined by the Iranian hostage crisis.  And four years ago President Barack Obama won by expressing his foreign policy differences with George W Bush rather than his opponent John McCain.

A recent poll says 92 per cent of Americans believe foreign policy to be “very” or “somewhat” important.  And it would be wrong to believe voters simply don’t care about America’s place in the world.

As the campaign enters its final days, this debate is one of the few chances left to persuade the undecided, for the candidates to speak with a mass audience.  And to once more challenge the conventional wisdom of US elections.

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