Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Over the past few presidential election cycles, election forecasting models have transformed political news coverage. A reasonably intelligent Martian following political Twitter in the weeks approaching Nov. 8 could be forgiven for concluding that America's president was chosen not by a quasi-democratic process, but by one individual: Nate Silver. And Nate and FiveThirtyEight had no monopoly on political forecasting. There were oodles of models: poll-based models (FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot), political science models (Alan Abramowitz and Ray Fair) and historical models (Lichtman's Keys). Many of these forecasts — including Silver's, Abramowitz's and Lichtman's — were far more predictive than the musings of the standard cable pundit.
It is with respect for the perceptive forecasters before me that I have created my own, admittedly late, presidential election model. I fashioned this model not to compete with Silver or Abramowitz but to note a pattern in American electoral politics. My dearest hope is that it can be of use to Democrats and progressives trying to unearth the perfect candidate to challenge President Trump in 2020.
So, without further ado, I present … The Caulfield Test (CT)! For those readers whose high schools didn't assign The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is a hypercritical adolescent whose primary source of pleasure is calling adults "phony." Fittingly, the Caulfield Test asks only the question, "Which of the major party presidential candidates is more phony?" That candidate will lose the election. It's simple!
OK, it's not that simple. The CT has some pretty glaring flaws. For one, it only seems to work for the elections since the mid-20th century. I suspect that the mass-market availability of television and the ensuing prominence of personality in presidential elections explains this. Additionally, it's pretty hard to quantify phoniness. An individual's political persuasion governs how they view a candidate's authenticity. So, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, I admit the Caulfield Test is less of a model than a guideline.
But, using the popular narratives of recent presidential elections, the CT is a powerful guideline. Some examples: In 2016, Hillary Clinton spoke politician-talk and Trump "told it like it is." In 2012, Mitt Romney failed to speak like anyone who has, like, fewer than $100 million in assets. H.W. was the awkward and cerebral prep-schooler; Bill Clinton was the syrupy Southern empath. In 1960, Jack Kennedy was an articulate and inspiring young man. Dick Nixon was probably crooked, and definitely sweaty.
Admittedly, these popular narratives, driven both by candidates and the media, may be inconsistent with reality. Both Bill Clinton and Trump can have a flexible relationship with the truth while still communicating authenticity. But, whatever their legitimacy, a candidate's folk myths matter. Historically, when the collective political consciousness judges a candidate inauthentic (or phony), they lose.
Why fixate on election forecast models several months after a presidential election? Because models, especially of the historical and political science breed, explain what matters in an election. For folks looking to select a potent challenger to Trump in 2020, the Caulfield Test is particularly instructive.
The CT would have us avoid candidates who appear to have been constructed in Frankenstein's laboratory. Often, political insiders assemble supercandidates who contain the perfect formula of experience, geography and ideology. But after being released from the political lab, supercandidates campaign like tedious cyborgs. They are very often phony. Hillary Clinton, on paper, was an excellent nominee: first lady, senator and secretary of state. On the campaign trail, however, she behaved like a poorly programmed robot: designed to be bland and brimming with lifeless platitudes.
So, in the quest for Trump's foil, Democrats don't need an unimpeachable resume. It won't take a governor from Ohio to win back the Midwest, and progressives shouldn't sacrifice their core values because political consultants insist they become moderate. No, there is only one inviolable benchmark for a Trump challenger: They cannot be phony. They must be comfortable in their own skin. Standing next to the president on a debate stage, the Democratic pick must reveal that Trump's populist shtick is a sham.
Democrats and progressives have been here before. After the 2004 election, the wise men of the Democratic party decided that Democrats should select a white, preferably southern moderate to run in 2008. They believed the only way to replicate George Bush's success was to pick his Democratic doppelganger. Democratic voters thought otherwise. The candidate they selected, who would become the most electorally successful Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt, was a black, progressive, first-term Senator from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama.
In 2008, Democrats chose a candidate who passed the Caulfield Test. Eight years later, they did not. In 2020, facing one of America's most dangerous presidents, the Democratic party cannot fail again.
Max Foley-Keene is a freshman government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.