With the Iowa caucuses just one year ahead of us, New York Times political blogger and number cruncher Nate Silver has devised a graphical representation of the 17 most likely candidates for the 2012 GOP nomination. His spatial approach to the task shows each candidate's relative political philosophy, insider/outsider status, probability of winning the nomination (based on present Intrade numbers), position relative to each other, and from what region of the country each one hails:
One dimension is obvious: we can classify the candidates from left to right, from relatively more moderate to relatively more conservative. But another dimension that is often salient in the primaries, and perhaps especially so for Republicans next year, is what we might think of as the insider/outsider axis: whether the candidate is viewed as part of the Republican establishment, or as a critic of it.An interesting effort by Silver. We do have our reservations, mainly with his decision to show the candidates' relative strength in terms of chances of winning the Republican Presidential nomination based on current Intrade wagering a year ahead of the Iowa caucuses. But that's as useful a device as any this far out from the GOP convention at summer's end. Still, as a snapshot in time, i.e., today, it's quite a useful chart.
Let me show you the chart, and then we can begin to work our way through it:
One can certainly debate exactly what it means to be a moderate or a conservative, and exactly where any particular candidate falls along this spectrum. Likewise, the insider/outsider dimension is somewhat blurry: is a potential candidate like Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who aligns himself with the Tea Party but is also an influential senator, a part of the Republican establishment or an opponent of it? So my placement of the candidates is necessarily approximate.
With that said, it is exceptionally important to consider how the candidates are positioned relative to one another. Too often, I see analyses of candidates that operate through what I’d call a checkbox paradigm, tallying up individual candidates’ strengths and weaknesses but not thinking deeply about how they will compete with one another for votes. If you like, you can think of the circles on my chart as stars or planets that exert gravitational forces on one another, seeking to clear their own safe space in the galaxy while at the same time stealing matter (voters) from their opponents.
There are two more kinds of information embedded in the chart...