Mellman: The ‘lane theory’ is the wrong lane to be in

It’s long past time we toss the “lane theory” of primaries into the dustbin of history.

Lane theory holds that candidates are essentially running to attract subsets of voters who have consistently different sets of priorities, ideological or otherwise. Until near the end of the race, claims the theory, candidates are clumped in distinct lanes, trying to defeat the others in their lane to make the final two.

For example, in an early usage of the metaphor, The Washington Post identified three “lanes” in the 2012 Republican primaries: the Tea Party/economic lane, the Tea Party/social lane, and the establishment lane.

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Mitt Romney was dubbed the leader in the establishment lane, Michele Bachmann in Tea Party/social lane and Rick Perry in the Tea Party/economic lane.

That year the establishment won big time, with Romney capturing the lead in 42 GOP primaries. Rick Santorum won 11, while plausibly occupying the Tea Party/social lane.

On these results, though, one would have to conclude that the establishment lane was a superhighway, while the social lane was tiny and the economic lane microscopic. Although the Post predicted the winner in the Tea Party/economic lane would capture the nomination, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence in the results that such a lane even existed.

Four years later, in 2015, a different Post analyst didn’t just change lanes, he completely changed the very lanes themselves.

He envisioned five lanes, all different: religious, Tea Party, conservative, moderate/ establishment and libertarian.

But along came Donald Trump and obliterated them all.

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Fast forward to 2019, where lane theorists are at it again, trying to analyze the Democratic primary and, hard as it is to believe, there are apparently more lanes than candidates.

Some posit left and moderate lanes. Others add an establishment lane, an insurgent lane, an experience lane, an electability lane, an educated white liberal lane, a fresh face lane, a women’s lane, a white working-class lane, a youth lane, a Midwestern lane and even an “old white guy” lane versus a “smart woman lawyer” lane.

With some 14 lanes, almost everyone should be a winner.

When lanes are constantly shifting and rarely agreed upon, they aren’t really lanes. Imagine trying to drive on the highway if everyone acted on a different belief about where the lanes were.

But there are empirical, as well as definitional, defects with lane theories.

If the idea has any meaning, or provides any analytical purchase, you would expect voters’ second choices to be in the same lane as their top preference.

They aren’t.

Professors Lynn Vavreck and John Sides examined voting intentions of 6,000 Democrats from mid-October to mid-November.

Joe Biden could occupy several of the above lanes — moderate, experienced, establishment and white male, among others.

Who were the top second choices of Biden voters? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) picked up 35 percent of Biden’s support and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) garnered 29 percent.

One could argue Sanders and Warren both occupy the progressive left lane, but it’s hard to see what lanes the both of them could also share with Biden.

Do Sanders voters flock to Warren as a second choice? Well, 36 percent do, but 32 percent opt for Biden.

Sanders is the top second-choice of Warren voters (32 percent) but two moderates, Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, together make up 41 percent of Warren voters’ second choices.

Buttigieg is assigned to the moderate, Midwest, fresh face and young lanes. The second choice of his voters? Thirty percent to Biden and 28 percent to Warren, neither of whom is Midwestern, fresh faced or young, and who seem to inhabit different ideological camps.

In short, lanes tell you nothing. Preferences don’t cohere in some preordained set of lanes and winning doesn’t require dominating a lane.

Next time someone tries to sell you a “lane” explanation, cover your ears and laugh as loudly as you can, to avoid a net loss of knowledge.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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