Luck and Talent in Politics

When I posted Your Next Senator Will Be … last week I was having some fun with the larger point that supposed experts and insiders may enjoy forecasting political events but are often wrong because of the “unknown unknowns” that attend our lives. Two days ago in Algebra of “Your Next Senator Will Be …” I provided a formula evaluating the outcomes of the 2006 gubernatorial, 2010 senate special, and 2012 senate elections. Simple as that equation was I can simplify it further and this time I have the work of a Nobel Prize winner behind me.

Daniel Kahneman is probably our greatest living psychologist and his work has earned him the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on decision making. I highly recommend his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In it Kahneman recounts that he was once asked for his favorite equation and submitted two. Here they are:

Success = talent + luck

Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

So success requires talent and luck but look at what happens when you want to get to great success. According to Kahneman, you would be helped by “a little more talent” but “a lot of luck.” So it appears that luck is more important than talent!

Back to 2006. Surely Deval Patrick has “a little more talent” but he also had some luck. Imposing as Attorney General Tom Reilly may have appeared to be in 2005, he was campaigning against the head winds faced by attorneys general in this state; Frank Bellotti, James Shannon, Scott Harshbarger, Martha Coakley, and of course Reilly have all had difficulty either keeping the job or moving up. Such were Reilly’s political skills that he not only finished far behind Patrick in the Democratic primary, he also finished behind Chris Gabrieli, a candidate who reportedly got into the race out of pique at Reilly. Then Patrick faced Republican Lt. Governor Kerry Healey in the general election, but the Republican Party had run out of reasons for being after sixteen years holding the governor’s office.

Then there was Governor Patrick’s re-election in 2010. His Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, was highly respected, but former Democrat Treasurer Tim Cahill ran as an Independent. Republicans believe that Cahill may have drawn off enough votes to help Patrick prevail. According to the Suffolk University/7News poll of late October 2010, 50% of respondents thought Massachusetts was going on the wrong track, 39% thought the state was headed in the right direction. Forty-three percent said Patrick deserved re-election, 49% said someone else should have a chance. His job approval was 44%-44%. He won easily. There had to be some luck in there somewhere.

The ultimate lucky ducky may have been Scott Brown in 2010. Dissatisfaction with President Obama and the Democrats was high. My UMB colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen showed that unemployment and housing price declines contributed to the Republican vote, and a heavy drop in turnout in low-income towns that usually vote Democratic cost votes to the Democratic candidate, AG Coakley (another stroke of Brown luck, she wasn’t a very good candidate). In 2012 Brown was just as talented and likeable as he had been in 2010, but his luck ran out. The economy had improved, the president’s popularity was restored as he headed the ticket, and many more Democrats turned out at the polls to vote for a strong candidate, Elizabeth Warren. The opponent was really bad luck because if Brown’s colleagues in the Senate Republican caucus had let her become head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Brown likely would have cruised to re-election. Oh well.

By the way, the very talented and popular Governor Bill Weld suffered a similar fate in 1996. It is bad luck to run with Bob Dole or Mitt Romney atop the ticket in Massachusetts.

Maybe it’s true that it is better to be lucky than good.



About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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