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Sunday conversation: The political ‘nature vs nurture’ argument

The political version of the age old "nature vs nurture" question goes like this: What matters more -- the candidates running or the environment in which the candidates are running?

MCLEAN, VA -- SEPTEMBER 25: Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, former DNC Chair, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II, Attorney General for Virginia, participate in a debate moderated by NBC4 Chuck Todd in McLean, Virginia, on Wednesday, September 25, 2013. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Political scientists -- the sabermetricians of the political world -- insist that the ground on which the campaign is fought is all-powerful and that candidate quality matters only at the margins. Longtime political hands -- the scouts of the political world -- insist that the eye test still matters, that watching how candidates/campaigns perform on the trail can tell you lots and lots about who is going to win.

The upcoming Virginia governor's race is a good example of this push-pull political debate.  Democrat Terry McAuliffe seems to be on the verge of victory. Is McAuliffe going to win primarily because he is a better candidate/has run a better campaign than state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli? Or was the die cast for both candidates when current Gov. Bob McDonnell was forced to weather a series of ethics scandals over the past year (damaging the GOP brand in the state) and/or when the federal government shut down (damaging the GOP brand nationally)?

Environment or candidate/campaign?  We want to hear your (ideally thoughtful) thoughts below. We will append some of the best ones to this post.


Comment from "Frazil":

Absolutely the environment has the greatest influence on a candidate. A good politician figures out where the people want to go and then runs out ahead of them and says "follow me!"


Comment from "JohnY1928":

The candidate and staff who can best decode and adapt to the environment he/she finds facing them

Jim Durbin, Social Media Headhunter and Strategist via Quora:

The quality of the candidate.

The political ground of the candidate has more to do with who decides to run, (in a bad environment, your best candidates bow out).

We like to sit back and analyze polls, and campaigns, and money - but when you talk to the people who are inside campaigns, they always point to the quality of the candidate.

The candidate has to want it. They have to be able to raise money, and they have to have a network of people who know how to spend it (lots of rich guys lose elections because money can't win on its own). They have to turn out the base without turning off the middle. They have to be likable, not just to the people voting for them, but to get favorable media coverage (reporters are people too), friends saying nice things about them, and endorsements from other politicians (endorsements don't help sway voters, but they do have an effect on who runs in primaries and what kind of tactics are used in the campaign).

Everything revolves around the candidate, because when it comes down to it, a voter is making a choice between candidates.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Chris Cillizza · November 1, 2013

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