Pundits analyze the elections; we analyze the pundits.
Sept. 17 1996 3:30 AM


The Horse Race charts the presidential election campaign using two measures: the Iowa Electronic Markets, and our own index of pundit opinion. (Movements in the Pundits' Index are justified and analyzed below.) The Iowa Electronic Markets are a project of the University of Iowa College of Business administration. They are real markets, with shares that pay out after the election. We follow Iowa's Winner-Takes-All market, which will pay $1 for each share in the winner. (Thus WTA share prices reflect the market's judgment, at any moment, of the chance of a candidate winning.) The Iowa folks' thesis is that markets are better prognosticators than the pundits. You be the judge. For more information, or to invest, visit the Iowa Electronic Markets site.

The Iowa Markets also track the battle for control of Congress. See below .

Iowa Electronic Market: as of 9/20/96
Clinton: 86, 1.1 from yesterday Dole: 14, 0.4 from yesterday
Pundits' Index: as of 9/16/96
Clinton: 92, 8 from last week Dole: 8, 8 from last week Perot: still a jug-eared zero
Last week, the Dole campaign was pronounced dead. This week, it's decomposing. The candidate chatted with Barbara Walters about post-political life and discussed what message he wants on his tombstone. Pat Robertson called Clinton's lead "insurmountable" and said it would take "a miracle from almighty God" for Dole to win (though he noted that he does believe in miracles). Pundits who hadn't already declared the race over started talking and writing about their colleagues declaring it over. Chat shows became funereal and listless. Dole's stock plunged to record lows in the Iowa and pundit markets. He's lost 75 percent of his pundit-market value in three weeks. (Actually, pundits privately downgraded Dole's stock to junk as soon as his convention bounce evaporated. But publicly, they liquidated their shares at a kinder, gentler pace.)
     Bored by Dole's slow, predictable, and unpleasant deterioration, the pundits have moved on to three adjacent topics: (1) What's right or wrong with the election (whose ads are nastier, which issues are important, etc.); (2) the nominees for 2000 (the early line is Gore vs. Kemp); and (3) the congressional races. The last are attracting particular attention--they're the only real horse race left. So that's where this page will focus, pending divine intervention on Mr. Dole's behalf.
     The threshold: Prognosticators debated how big a majority Clinton must win in the popular vote in order to swing the 20 House seats necessary to give the Democrats control. Gerald Seib opened the bidding at around 58 percent (a 15-point margin for Clinton), poli-sci nerds concurred in the NewYorkTimes, and by the weekend, R.W. Apple had established "the high double digits" as Clinton's magic number "to set off a landslide that would bury large numbers of House Republicans" in the Midwest. Everyone agreed the key variable was turnout among hard-core Republicans, who might stay home in despair if Dole looks like a sure loser on Election Day.
     States: The shift to congressional races revived pundits' interest in state-by-state analysis. They derided Dole's campaign stops and ad buys in states he should have had in the bag (Arizona, Florida, South Carolina), but found the down-ballot implications interesting. Apple predicted Clinton's coattails would safeguard "most if not all" the dicey Democratic seats in the Midwest. Conservatives wagered that the GOP would offset the depletion of its freshmen by winning seats that Democrats are vacating in the South. Morton Kondracke predicted Clinton will defy that strategy by campaigning in Texas, figuring that while he can't win there, his congressional candidates might.
     GOP message: Right-leaners noted the continuing diagnostic debate in the GOP over whether its message (tax cuts, Gingrich Congress, ideological conservatism) is too extreme or its messenger (Dole) is failing to deliver the message effectively. Some predicted the election will affect the diagnostic debate more than the diagnostic debate will affect the election--i.e., if GOP congressional candidates survive while Dole loses, the messenger-blamers will be vindicated.
     Divided government: This week's obligatory pseudo-insight was that Americans like to keep the presidency and Congress in different party hands. The WallStreetJournal offered this as one reason GOP candidates aren't overly worried about Dole's woes. Several pundits sneered that the same reason probably accounts for Clinton's silence about electing a Democratic Congress.
     Desertion: The pundits can hardly wait for Dole's party to betray him. Ralph Reed's remark that religious conservatives "are no longer fixated on the Oval Office" bounced from the NewYorkTimes onto the chat shows. Left-leaners chuckled that Republican congressional candidates are assuring their constituents that they can work amicably with Clinton. Cynics snickered that self-styled conservative revolutionaries are playing down their ideology and riding the pro-incumbent wave. The Journal noted that Republican incumbents are undermining Dole's criticism of the economy by taking credit for the country's prosperity.
     Money: Throughout the summer, the pundits were awed by organized labor's massive ad campaign against GOP candidates. The awe is now giving way to sober reflection that the GOP has a huge financial surplus and is hoarding it for a massive counterattack in the election's final weeks.
     Bottom line: The opening conventional wisdom in the pundit congressional market is: (1) Clinton's big lead seriously jeopardizes GOP control of the House. Polls indicate that Democratic congressional candidates, generically, are now preferred by about the same margin that the GOP enjoyed just before its 1994 landslide; (2) Clinton's lead will probably diminish, and Republicans will probably recover in the generic polls and keep the House; (3) Democrats are less likely to win the Senate than the House; (4) Whoever ends up in control will have only a bare majority, so the parties will have to cooperate more; (5) If the GOP loses control, House Republicans will have the long knives out for Gingrich.

--William Saletan


Iowa Electronic Market: Congressional Control Gain is a share that pays $1 if the Republicans increase their number of seats. Hold pays $1 if they stay the same or lose seats but retain majority control. Lose pays $1 if the Republicans lose their majority. The IEM site has graphs tracking price changes over time for the House and the Senate. The latest prices as of 9/20/96:


Senate Gain: 34, unchanged from yesterday Senate Hold: 48.6, 0.9 from yesterday Senate Lose: 21.5, 1.3 from yesterday


House Gain: 14, 0.7 from yesterday House Hold: 47.9, 2.1 from yesterday House Lose: 39.7, 1.3 from yesterday


Congressional Pundits' Index

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.



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