If You’re Explaining, You Los- Eh, No, Wait, You’re Doing Your Job.

by Jim Geraghty

I’ve always disliked the oft-cited political axiom, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It may generally be true, or be better rephrased that voters are more receptive to simple explanations than complicated ones. But when you hear someone in the political world citing it, they’re usually preemptively dismissing facts contrary to a false or dubious assertion.

At it’s heart, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” is a statement opposing explanations. It implies the electorate doesn’t have the attention span to hear the explanation, isn’t capable of understanding it, or is so reflexively suspicious that it will reject any explanation as a lie.

If you genuinely believe this, then it follows that you think the collective voting electorate has a set amount of knowledge bout a topic, and will not receive or be able to process or contemplate any additional information. But if this was the case, polls would never move. Judging from the polls, Republican primary voters began this cycle open to the idea of Jeb Bush, and decided against it after watching him campaign. They were initially not that familiar with Ben Carson, initially impressed and warmed to him, and then turned away as summer turned into fall. Voters are almost always taking in new data – usually a little, sometimes more as the race gets more coverage and events like debates and primaries occur. So explanations can’t be inherently pointless or self-defeating.

It came up this morning in the context of Donald Trump’s claim that Colorado’s delegates to the convention are rightfully his, and some nefarious group conspired to take them away from him and give them to Ted Cruz. (You notice how rarely anyone ever mentions that eight Trump delegates were selected as alternates. Something like that would complicate the simple conspiracy-theory story.)

Even if the axiom “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” applies to political campaigns, it should be printed out and set on fire in every newsroom and office of anyone connected to the journalism business. Earlier this week, Howard Kurtz offered a curious new standard: If a caucus system is complicated, and if party procedures are “arcane”, then it “starts to look pretty ugly and pretty undemocratic.” Well, gee whiz, the party procedures are only “arcane” if nobody bothers to tell the public about it after reading them on the state party’s web site. Explaining something like the Colorado Republican Party’s rules for selecting delegates to the public sounds an awful lot like the job of political journalists, doesn’t it?

Here it is in three steps: You vote for delegates at your precinct March 1; the delegates you elect vote among themselves for delegates to district and statewide conventions; at the district and statewide conventions, those delegates vote on who goes to Cleveland. Boom. Done. Republicans can argue about whether that’s the best system, or even a good system. But everyone arguing about it ought to know how it works.

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