The primary for Oregon’s 6th congressional district is now over, and it’s looking like Carrick is going to lose, coming in second out of nine candidates. That Carrick lost is a real shame. My sense is if Carrick had won, he could have done a lot of good – in particular, advancing pandemic prevention (e.g., via participating in bill markups), with an outside chance of getting Biden’s pandemic prevention plan enacted. As a silver lining, I think the value of information from this race was quite high, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the information this race provides will be valuable enough to EA that it outweighs the costs associated with the race.
First off, I want to applaud Carrick for taking the plunge and running; as a general rule, I think EAs should be more ambitious, especially in novel situations where the value of information is high, and it’s nice to see someone really following through with this. Carrick, his wife Kathryn, and their whole team put it in an enormous amount of work, faced many obstacles outside of their control, and withstood unfair public criticism, all in the service of improving the world.
Below are what I believe to be some of the more important lessons that we should take away from this race. For transparency sake, I started jotting down notes and sketching part of a draft of this piece before the day of the race – I didn’t write the piece entirely today. I also got feedback on this post from a few people in my network, and I strongly recommend others who plan on writing further posts on this topic similarly get feedback from other EAs before posting, in order to ensure that the post embodies community ideals, both to those reading it from within our community and those who may be looking in from the outside, especially right now as more external attention is being directed at EA. Personally, some of the feedback I got from others led me to rephrase certain things in ways I hadn’t considered and for which I think was helpful for reducing misunderstandings of EA.
Lesson 1: EAs can seriously compete for open congressional seats, and preparing to run well in advance of a race probably would significantly further improve the odds of winning
Yes, Carrick lost. But he came in second out of nine, despite several factors pushing pretty strongly against him. Had things shaken out differently on a few key factors, he could have won.
Here’s a partial list of factors that were pushing against Carrick:
• lack of local political connections, which led local political actors to strongly fight against him
• relative lack of practice/training in talking like a politician, which understandably led to politically costly misstatements
• running in a state that he had very recently moved back to (he moved back after COVID hit), which appears to have led to some skepticism
• a combination of the above factors led to unfavorable media coverage
• Salinas (the winner of the primary) benefitting from $1M of Super PAC money herself from BOLD PAC.
Most of the items on that list seem avoidable by any future EA candidate who preps for a political career far ahead of time instead of first beginning to think about running when a seat opens up – even the adversarial Super PAC spending (the least controllable item on the list) may be reduced by having better long-term relationships with the political community. For instance, if Carrick had held local office before running for the House, I think he would have been in a much stronger position for this race (I think he probably would have won). To be clear, this point is not a criticism of Carrick running for the House directly – I actually agree with the decision, given that Congressional seats only open up so often, and the value of information here was likely substantially larger than it would have been if he had just ran for a local position.
Meanwhile, I don’t think there were any factors of comparable size pushing in Carrick’s favor that couldn’t apply to other potential future EA candidates. Carrick’s most positive traits don’t seem to have mattered a ton in this election – Carrick seems unusually selfless and intelligent, even for an EA, but these don't seem to have been the largest deciding factors for most voters. Carrick is definitely more charismatic than some EAs, but he’s not unusually charismatic for an EA (see, for instance, this interview; also, sorry if including this point causes offense – I’m choosing to prioritize faithful assessment over tact).
So the fact that Carrick came in second, despite several (in the future, mostly avoidable) factors strongly pushing against him, and no comparable unique factors pushing in his favor, makes me more optimistic about the prospects of any future EAs who decide to run. To be concrete, my personal best guess is that >30% of American EAs would have at least a decent shot (say, >20%) of making it into Congress if they chose to dedicate themselves to their local community and spend time practicing the appropriate communication skills.
Lesson 2: When running for Congress, having political experience and a good track record is very valuable – including if your campaign is backed up with lots of Super PAC donations
Having a political track record is obviously helpful for showing voters what sort of policies you’ll pursue in office. Having political connections is further valuable, as politics is an inherently social process, and pre-existing relationships make it much easier to convince local party officials and other respected members of the community to endorse your campaign. The best way to prove to voters that you will work in their best interests is by having a track record of working in their best interests and having respected community leaders who can vouch for you.
I think these points are especially true if your campaign is backed up with large donations from Super PACs, as voters may otherwise be skeptical about your motives and more susceptible to speculations. In this campaign, both Carrick’s opponents and the local media semi-successfully portrayed Carrick as a crypto shill, despite Carrick (as far as I can tell) not caring much about crypto one way or the other, and actually caring a great deal about other issues such as pandemic preparedness. If Carrick had held local office previously and used his time there to advance policies for pandemic preparedness and expanding the social safety net (another one of the issues he campaigned on), I think voters and the local media would have been more trusting of his message, and, further, he would have been able to secure more local endorsements.
As another piece of data, SBF has also supported a number of other (non-EA) candidates across the country this cycle, all of whom have more political experience than Carrick. In several of these cases, the candidate SBF supported has either already won their primary or is very likely to win. In each of these races, the candidate’s opponent(s) have similarly tried to portray them as a tool of crypto, but these criticisms have mostly fallen flat, and in none of them did the local media play along in the same way they did here. While we can’t completely rule out that the differentiating factor here is the amount of money donated, I’m skeptical that this was the main factor – while SBF didn’t donate quite as much to other candidates as to Carrick, he still donated substantial sums (e.g., ~$2M to one candidate, ~$1 to four more), and, due to scope neglect, I’m skeptical that the emotional response to one or two million dollars donated is substantially different from that of ten million dollars donated. (I suppose it’s also possible that the relevant difference between Carrick and other candidates SBF supported here is actually more due to stochastic effects, in which case Carrick may have gotten “unlucky” while others got “lucky” – there may be something to this, though I’d be surprised if it was the main relevant difference.)
Lesson 3: In Congressional races, more recent ties to the district/state matter much more than ties from long ago
As far as I can tell, other than Carrick, none of the other candidates in the primary appear to have been born or grown up in Oregon (for instance, Salinas, the winner, doesn’t appear to have information about her childhood online, but she did attend UC Berkeley). Carrick, meanwhile, is originally from the area, and teachers from the local school remember him fondly.
Despite Carrick’s deeper roots to the area, his lack of more recent ties to the state caused him to be portrayed as a geographic outsider (Carrick moved back to Oregon in 2020). Meanwhile, none of his competitors appeared to suffer politically for not originally being from Oregon.
“Carpetbagger” is a dirty word in US politics – but apparently the way it applies today is to refer to people who recently moved to an area to run for office, without developing connections to the community. People who moved to an area long enough ago to develop real connections to the community evidently aren’t considered carpetbaggers – especially if they’ve already gotten involved in local politics.
The implication seems to be that if two potential candidates are deciding whether to run for office, one that’s recently moved back to their hometown, and another that, as an adult, has moved to an area they did not grow up in but have since become part of the community, the latter is will probably be in a better position to run, ceteris paribus.
Lesson 4: If you think you might run for office in the future, make sure to vote in every election
One of the main substantive attacks against Carrick was that he had only voted in 2 of the previous 30 elections. Now, I know Carrick was living overseas for much of that time so voting would have been a pain, and further that Oregon isn’t exactly a swing state, significantly decreasing the expected impact of his vote. Having said that, the optics here are still not great, and voting records are public information (whether or not you vote is public, the way you vote is obviously secret). Since voting is generally pretty low cost, I think that (barring incredibly extenuating circumstances) every EA that’s eligible to vote should vote.
Lesson 5: EA candidates themselves may face bad press when running for office, as may the candidates’ large donors, but this doesn’t automatically translate into bad PR for EA as a community
It’s no secret that both Carrick and SBF faced a fair bit of negative press throughout this campaign. I was surprised by the extent to which one local media outlet went after Carrick (not linking to them since I think it’s generally good for there to be a little bit of friction between someone posting negatively about a thing on the internet and their readers/followers descending on that thing – I’m sure you can find them if you want). While I think most of this negative press could be avoided in the future with proper precautions (e.g., being part of the local political community before running, running for local office in the district before Congress, etc, as mentioned above), we should obviously expect some negative press from running candidates, due to the inherently adversarial nature of party politics. One thing that I found interesting in this race, however, is the bad press didn’t seem to rub off much on EA as a whole.
I’ve heard people previously worry that running EA candidates may substantially worsen the reputation of the movement. I believe this race provides an update against this view. While Carrick faced a barrage of attacks from other candidates, as well as several hit pieces from a local media outlet, none of these attacks focused on EA – instead, they focussed on the crypto connection, money in politics, Carrick’s political inexperience, Carrick only recently having moved to the area, and things like voting record and political misstatements. Two major media pieces about the race were focused on EA, but both of them were mostly positive on EA (and, for that matter, neutral-to-positive on Carrick).
In retrospect, I suppose it’s not that surprising that attacks focused on things other than EA. “Preventing pandemics” isn’t exactly particularly unpopular, and tying in EA to a political attack would add one more step of reasoning compared to more direct attacks; from a strategic perspective, it makes sense that competitors would instead highlight bigger and more direct political vulnerabilities or call into question motives, rather than highlighting the connection between Carrick and EA, and then attacking EA as a whole. Of course, none of this is a guarantee that future campaigns couldn’t trash EA’s reputation – but it is worth noting that in this race, that didn’t occur to any significant degree at all, even in a very heated primary, where, among other things, the local political machine lined up to try to take Carrick down.
Lesson 6: As a Democratic candidate, being “the crypto guy” is a political liability; being tied to EA, not as much
This point is a bit of the inverse of the above point. I’ve heard some EAs worry that a candidate being tied to EA would be a political nonstarter, with several potential reasons given: political candidates are supposed to represent their constituents and prioritize their country, so the cosmopolitan aspect of valuing all lives everywhere equally would end any campaign; veganism has a bad rap, most people intuitively think of vegans as weak/soft, and further the agricultural industry would lobby heavily to stop an EA candidate; heavy involvement in a niche subculture just seems weird, and EA has some weird beliefs; etc. Note how, if any of those lines of attack were particularly effective, they should have destroyed Carrick. Carrick previously has worked in Kenya, Liberia, Timor-Leste, India, Malaysia, and Ethiopia, helping people that were most definitely not American citizens. He is publicly vegan (as is his wife). He co-founded GovAI, and he’s published articles explicitly about the subject of superintelligent AI, with Nick Bostrom as co-author. There was also a very-highly-upvoted post on the EA forum by a public-facing EA in good standing with the EA community, which used EA logic to recommend that EAs support Carrick (who, the post reminded everyone, is an EA) – and this post was picked up by the political media.
If ever there was a person that could be tied to EA, in exactly the ways that some have thought might sink EA political campaigns, Carrick should fit that bill. Yet none of those factors hurt his campaign at all (none led to negative press coverage, a couple of national media outlets had positive coverage of the EA connection, and his opponents didn’t seize on any of these points for attacks).
To be clear, none of those factors seem to have helped his campaign either, so to the few people I’ve previously heard argue that EA traits such as the selflessness might be attractive to voters (e.g., “accepting a low salary and donating much to charity would signal good things to voters”), well, that didn’t really happen. I just don’t think being tied to EA as a candidate has much effect one way or the other (at least it didn’t in a single Democratic primary in Oregon during 2022).
On the other hand, the (much more tenuous in reality) crypto connection was a real negative – bigger than I would have thought ahead of time. As mentioned above, I think local political experience and connections would weaken that connection by, among other things, honestly and credibly signaling to voters priorities unrelated to crypto.
Lesson 7: Even among EAs, politics might somewhat degrade our typical epistemics and rigor – we should guard against this
I should start off by saying that I think many of the actions that EAs took surrounding this campaign were both positive in EV terms and well supported as such. I think the case for small-dollar donations, for instance, was strong, and I personally maxed out my donation and made the case to many others to do the same. I also think it’s great that members of this community are generally supportive of each other's goals and want to help each other.
But some of the arguments that EAs took regarding supporting the campaign, especially as the election became closer, seemed less to be well reasoned by EA lights, and more to be simply emotionally motivated, out of something like a sense of tribalism or a desire to do something.
A lot of this is picking up on vibe, and it’s possible I’m misinterpreting things, but it felt like some of what some EAs were doing late on in the campaign was defended within the movement more on activist-y grounds than on truth seeker-y grounds.
As just one concrete point, a few times I saw EAs (while arguing for further support for Carrick) advance the claim that this race was likely to be very close, as predictit was giving Carrick and Salinas each ~50% odds (with the implication that actions that only very marginally helped Carrick could still be very high EV). While one possible interpretation of this datapoint is that the race was likely to be very close, another (in my opinion, more obvious) possibility was that the race was just very uncertain – after all, there weren’t very many polls, and those that did exist showed a large majority of voters not having coalesced around either Carrick or Salinas. I think that most EAs that were arguing the race would be very close would have, in other contexts, realized the other interpretation was the more likely one.
Insofar as our epistemics were momentarily weakened during the campaign, I don’t think this led to any terrible decisions. But I do think that, in any future political endeavors, we want to guard against emotional interests clouding rational analysis.
My sense is that the best defense against motivated political reasoning may simply be to be conscious of the biases, and to screen arguments a bit harder – especially as other people’s enthusiasm rises or as an election approaches.
I’m upset that Carrick lost. But I’m also happy that he ran. I think the information we can gain from his run is quite valuable. First off, I think this race showed that EAs have the ability to win Congressional seats, and that the downsides to pursuing these seats likely aren’t catastrophic if future candidates embody the best attributes of EA as Carrick does. Second off, I think the race yields many specific lessons about how to increase the chances of winning, as well as how to limit the downsides, and pitfalls to avoid.