Elections analyst Henry Olsen talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about the presidential candidates, how he accurately gauges election outcomes and why this year’s race for the White House could be the most unpredictable since the late-1940s.
Henry Olsen remembers being awestruck with politics during childhood. “I was probably the only 6-year-old in Los Angeles excited on the night of the Republican convention in 1968,” he says. “It wasn’t something I could follow at a mature level but I always enjoyed following elections.” While watching the 1974 election returns as a teenager he became interested in the data behind the process. “There were no exit polls and no nice computer graphics back then. All the numbers were coming in on these clunky machines and I remember wondering how they got there—not the mechanics of it but the numbers themselves. That was kind of the start of my studying of elections.”
Olsen received his B.A. in political science from Claremont McKenna College and his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. “In college I was very interested in political theory, history and policy and knew I wanted some sort of political career,” he says. He practiced law, served as a law clerk for an appeals court judge, worked as a political consultant and even ran for office himself before finding a “happy medium” in the think-tank community.” “I started becoming a political essayist in my late-40s,” he adds. “Seeing what was going on in our country moved me to write in a way I had never been moved to write before. The last eight years have certainly provided a lot of fodder, as we have been moving through one of the most traumatic series of elections in the last century and a half.”
Today, Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he studies and provides commentary on American politics. He writes books, essays and op-eds that shape public opinion, and examines election returns and poll data to figure out why people vote the way they do and how conservative politicians and thinkers in particular can advance their ideas. “I love thinking about new public policies and combining them with political analysis. I get to see whether what I write makes people think and moves a debate forward.”
Olsen also writes for the influential conservative magazine National Review. He previously served as vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a vice president at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Commonwealth Foundation.
Opportunist: In this election year, what do you consider the most critical issues facing the nation?
Henry Olsen: We have a lot of rethinking to do as a nation. What we are seeing in the campaigns is that both parties are stuck in the latter part of the last century and are recycling old worldviews. I think both political parties are still struggling. We are seeing people thinking outside the box and finding an enthusiastic response, but we need to think about our role in the world where we don’t have an adversary motivated or capable of destroying us. The Cold War dominated our thinking and action over the last part of the 20th century but we don’t have a Soviet Union anymore. Turning radical Islam into a Soviet style threat is untenable. That’s not to say radical Islam is not a threat. It is, but on a scale of 1 to10, with 10 being the removal or overthrow of the U.S. government, the threat from radical Islam is a three.
Opportunist: Why then do we hear so much in the media about the threat of Al Qaeda and ISIS?
Henry Olsen: Terrorism really scares people. We know from social science that people fear what they don’t know and don’t fear what they do. In actuality, there is more risk of dying behind the wheel of a car but people are more scared of nuclear accidents. Terrorism is a minuscule risk of death but people will naturally fear it. Many governments seem to be unable to stop it. It seems to be a recurring feature of life in developed and, frankly, in the Islamic world as we know from the Pakistan bombing over the weekend. It seems to be part of our daily life and people are scared of it. But that doesn’t impel us to be the world’s policeman.
Opportunist: Are you surprised by the outcome of the presidential primaries?
Henry Olsen: I’m not at all surprised on the Democrat side. It was clear throughout the year that Bernie Sanders would need to win votes of the nonwhite population in order to win. The fact that voters have been reelecting established Republican members of Congress and at the same time seem to support radical change for president is very unusual and that has surprised me.
Opportunist: What is behind Donald Trump’s appeal with voters and do you believe he will obtain the 1,237 required for the Republican nomination?
Henry Olsen: There’s a large segment of Americans who feel ignored and belittled by the elites of all stripes in both parties. Donald Trump tells those people their worldview is right, that they can be treated as part of America again and that he’s got their back and will make their views a national priority. Trump could still lose but I think he will be the nominee. There’s an even chance he will get the pledged delegates before the convention or fall slightly short but make a deal with somebody.
Opportunist: Senator Bernie Sanders just had a big win in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. Do you believe he can overtake current Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton?
Henry Olsen: No. The chances of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination based on pledged delegates are roughly equivalent to John Belushi’s grade point average in ‘Animal House.’ That would be 0.0.
Opportunist: Why is that?
Henry Olsen: He does not have majority appeal of nonwhite voters. The way the Democrats apportion delegates, he cannot win without being the favorite of nonwhite voters—especially African American voters.
Opportunist: We understand National Review has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. When asked about the magazine’s choice of presidential candidate, National Review’s founder, the late William F. Buckley, once said ‘the wisest choice would be the one who would win.’ With that in mind, do you believe Sen. Cruz can still beat Trump—especially if Cruz wins California?
Henry Olsen: No. Ted Cruz cannot win on the first ballot. He’s not going to get 1,237 delegates pledged to him. The math is not favorable to Cruz. I think he will be lucky to get 1,000 delegates. His chance may come on the second ballot if Trump is denied the nomination on the first ballot. Almost all delegates are no longer bound by pledges to support the nominee. Many delegates are not Trump loyalists; they are party loyalists. On the second or third ballot, they are not bound to Trump and will likely vote their consciences instead.
If I were Ted Cruz, I would not be making the attacks he’s making. He continues to run a campaign for president of The Heritage Foundation rather than president of the United States. Not every Republican is a movement conservative. Not every Republican instinctively flinches in horror that somebody once talked to or contributed to a Democrat. What Cruz ought to be doing is going after Trump voters on the grounds that he cares more about getting things done than ideology and represents not just movement conservative values but centrist American values.
Opportunist: Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said he won’t drop out of the race before the Wisconsin primary next week. Why hasn’t he withdrawn like Ben Carson and Marco Rubio?
Henry Olsen: The math going forward is favorable to Kasich and the states yet to vote are moderate voters. He doesn’t have to win a state in order to pick up delegates. Let’s say he comes out with 350 delegates. That means he would be in a position to strike his own deal with people in the second or third ballot—the same way Cruz would. Once the delegates are unbound, they can vote their consciences. Kasich has a strong argument for electability. He runs best against Hillary of any of the three GOP candidates. He consistently beats her. He’s the one who is probably most naturally appealing to the sort of centrist-conservative Republicans who normally dominate the Republican Party—the person who’s likely to be sent as a delegate. If you show up with 350 delegates, you can either strike a deal with another candidate in the run up or, more likely, wait to the delegate rundown. Then it’s an old-fashioned convention. There are plenty of people in third place who end up getting nominated. If it goes to a second ballot, this will be the most consequential convention with the least amount of predictably since at least 1948—and possibly before. At that point it becomes the first time in decades that delegates are in a position where they actually decide. They’ve been in the position of ratifying popular choice. There is nobody alive who has covered a consequential convention.
Opportunist: There has been some speculation that Marco Rubio’s political career would be finished if he lost his home state of Florida. What are your thoughts on that?
Henry Olsen: It’s too soon to say. He got annihilated in his home state in a Republican party primary, so he obviously has a lot of work to do if he stays in Florida. What stood out to me is not just that he got annihilated but that he did not have much support outside the Miami Cuban community. That has to give him a lot of pause. If he wants to stay in Florida he has lots of bridges to build. He might consider moving to Virginia, which is home to a lot of national Republican party officials who clearly like Rubio. He did better in Virginia than in his home state. His sort of appeal might be stronger there than in Florida.
If it does go to a convention, I would expect Rubio to reenergize his campaign. He has the ability to influence the 160 delegates pledged to him. They can unsuspend him and then become bound to him again. I would expect him to exercise it.
Opportunist: You have made some uncannily accurate election predictions through the years. How do you come to your conclusions?
Henry Olsen: I look a lot at data. And, as much as humanly possible, I don’t let myself get influenced by what I want to happen. I have honed an ability to get beyond that quite well. A lot of people are not data focused, like the people who will argue on TV that Bernie Sanders can win. No, actually, he can’t. When you’re data-focused that grounds you. I work very hard to see things as they are and not as I want them to be. Lots of people use data as confirmation bias. In South Carolina, for example, where seven or eight polls showed [the other candidates were] gaining on Trump, I went out on a limb and said ‘here’s why I don’t believe the latest polls’ and I was right.
Opportunist: What was the inspiration for your book Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination?
Henry Olsen: I had written essays of the same name for The National Interest magazine and got a lot of attention in the press and in the political geek community. My coworker Dante Scala had wanted to write a book with me, so we thought why not expand the essay into a book? That’s what led to it. We delved deeper into it and got some data sources we hadn’t had before and tested the limit of the theory and modified it in some ways, and it was a very fun book to write with him.
Opportunist: We understand you are currently working on a book about Ronald Reagan. Can you give us a preview?
Henry Olsen: It’s an intellectual biography. I’m not going to tell you who he was really in love with in 1935. What I’m doing with this book is taking a look at his public record and particularly his speeches and trying to analyze his thoughts and explain how Reagan was misunderstood on the left and the right. I think people tend to see him through the lenses they want to see him through rather than the argument he presented. I will uncover the real Reagan, a man who has much more in common with Franklin D. Roosevelt than people on the left or the right actually want to admit.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Henry Olsen on Twitter: @henryolsenEPPC