Pundits analyze the elections; we analyze the pundits.
Oct. 22 1996 3:30 AM

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

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The Horse Race charts the presidential election campaign using two measures: the Iowa Electronic Markets, and our own index of pundit opinion. 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 10/25/96
Clinton: 94.9, 0.6 from yesterday Dole: 4.8, 0.7 from yesterday
Pundits' Index: as of 10/21/96
Clinton: 98, 5 from last week Dole: 2, 5 from last week Perot: Here's the deal: Zero
T he pundits billed the second presidential debate as Bob Dole's last chance to avert a Clinton landslide. After grading Dole's performance clumsy and halfhearted, they waited patiently for the next poll (showing no improvement for Dole) before pronouncing the debate a failure and Dole a corpse. The previous, repressed consensus that Dole was dead--which had seemed to be the worst thing one could say about him--degenerated to an even harsher, outspoken consensus that Dole actually has been dead for a long time, ranging from five months (Jack Germond) to a year (Al Hunt). Bob Novak refused to wager on Dole unless he was spotted 23 points. Pundits particularly enjoyed rehashing Sunday's New York Times story in which numerous Republicans were quoted writing off Dole and heaping scorn on his campaign. The most interesting contrarian argument, advanced by the Washington Times' Josette Shiner, was that only the pundits themselves could rescue Dole, by crowning Clinton prematurely and thereby infuriating the voters.
     On Oct. 20, Republican stock collapsed in the Iowa Market. Bob Dole plunged below 4 cents, to depths previously inhabited only by Ross Perot. Meanwhile, the closing share price of a Democratic takeover of the House soared to 45 cents, and the share price of the Democratic takeover of the Senate leapt to 20 cents.
     With the outcome no longer in question, suspense shifted to the point spread, the Electoral College, and Clinton's post-re-election transition. Doomsayers broached the possibility of a second consecutive sub-40 percent showing by the Republican presidential nominee, speculating on the internal scapegoating and strife it would provoke. The gist of Electoral College talk was that Clinton has a wealth of plausible state combinations, whereas Dole has none. Clinton's itinerary, targeting GOP strongholds such as Alabama and Orange County, awed pundits into forecasts of a blowout. Estimates averaged around 350 electoral votes for Clinton, 100 for Dole, and the rest up for grabs. The cruelest bit of transition speculation was that in his second term, Clinton might appoint Dole to head up an independent commission on Medicare or campaign-finance reform.
     The second debate: The pundits managed to criticize Dole's character attacks from both sides. While chiding him for turning off voters, they called him a sissy for not hitting hard enough. Fred Barnes likened Dole's performance to Lucille Ball swinging a handbag--"not enough Robert DeNiro." Carl Rowan snickered, "I've seen better fights in Sunday school." Commentators said Dole should have gone negative long ago, shouldn't have agonized publicly over the propriety of doing so, and shouldn't have pulled his punches. Several blamed the town-hall format for cluttering the debate with a third participant--the voters--thereby discouraging the candidates from savaging each other. The contrarian view was that Republicans had been so hysterical about Clinton's ethics for the past four years (e.g., leveling wild allegations about Vince Foster's death) that the public no longer took the allegations seriously. A few analysts defended Dole's character attacks by process of elimination, pointing out that he had exhausted every other strategy. Half-cynics scoffed that voters were so bored they hadn't even watched the debate. Total cynics called the lousy TV ratings a lucky break for Dole.
     Indonesian money scandal: The pundits could hardly pronounce it--stumbling over the names "Huang" and "Wiriadinata"--much less understand it. Everyone agreed that the scandal is terribly serious, will continue to be the focus of investigative reporting, and will be thoroughly ignored by the voters. As Jack Germond derisively put it: "The whole thing stinks. So what?" Wizened old cynics noted that upstanding character hadn't saved Carter or Bush and that White House sleaze hadn't brought down Reagan. Fresh young cynics argued that voters have come to expect sleaze, so Clinton's misbehavior doesn't impress them. Liberals said the scandal wouldn't stick to Clinton because Dole has campaign-finance embarrassments of his own. Conservatives said it wouldn't stick because Dole is too incompetent to wield it effectively. The new consensus is that the Indonesian mess, like Watergate, will haunt the president in his second term.
     California: Pundits spent much of the weekend debating the wisdom of Dole's reallocation of money and time from traditional northern swing states (Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey) to a concentrated gamble on California. They concluded that it was a lousy bet but that Dole's chances of winning the northern states were even lousier.
     Congress: Euthanasia was the controversy of the week. Conservatives pleaded that Dole was brain-dead and that his organs should be harvested to save congressional Republicans--i.e., the GOP should concede Clinton's re-election, urge voters to elect a Republican Congress to keep him in check, and assign Dole to prop up struggling congressional candidates. Liberals denounced this cannibalism as an outrage against the old man's dignity. Agnostics pointed out that the GOP was already embarking on this course, with Dole's apparent consent, by sending him to states such as New Hampshire and Kansas. Meanwhile, pundits finally took a close look at specific Senate races (instead of the previous gestalt method) and concluded that the GOP couldn't lose its majority after all. But they dismissed Republican predictions of an expanded House majority as preposterous bravado. There was increasing speculation about a Republican ouster of Speaker Gingrich if things didn't go well. Pundits lowered the stakes in the Senate, on the grounds that the filibuster is now so common that each party needs only 41 votes to wreak its will. On the other hand, they raised the stakes in the House, arguing (contrary to previous notions that a slim majority either way would produce cooperation and centrism) that Republicans would use their majority to launch further congressional investigations and destroy Clinton's second term.

--William Saletan

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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 10/25/96:

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Senate Gain: 19.7, 0.2 from yesterday Senate Hold: 60.2, 2.8 from yesterday Senate Lose: 18.0, 0.8 from yesterday

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House Gain: 8.2, 4.2 from yesterday House Hold: 55.0, unchanged from yesterday House Lose: 40.0, 1.3 from yesterday

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Congressional Pundits' Index: as of 10/21/96

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Senate Gain: 17, 2 from last week Senate Hold: 73, 10 from last week Senate Lose: 10, 12 from last week

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House Gain: 2, 1 from last week House Hold: 80, 13 from last week House Lose: 18, 12 from last week

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