Pundits analyze the elections; we analyze the pundits.
Oct. 15 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 10/18/96
Clinton: 88.5, 0.9 from yesterday Dole: 11.7, 0.3 from yesterday
Pundits' Index: as of 10/14/96
Clinton: 93, 1 from last week Dole: 7, 1 from last week Perot: Zero. Can we agree on that?
Investors can cope with inertia. Pundits can't. So while the Iowa market has firmed up its home-stretch odds--with Bill Clinton an 88-cent favorite and Bob Dole an 11-cent long shot--the pundits demand tumult and controversy. Dole's failure to savage Clinton has propelled the pundits through several stages of Non-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the latent stage before the Oct. 6 presidential debate, commentators decried negative campaigning and predicted that Dole would be sorry if he stooped to it. In the arousal stage, during the weekend before the debate, pundits continued to disdain mudslinging but decided that Dole had to resort to it to salvage his candidacy. During the debate, the pundits lapsed into shock, as Dole defied their predictions by rejecting an invitation from moderator/pundit Jim Lehrer to attack Clinton's character. Their shock passed during the next few days, as Dole promised to scrap the nice-guy routine. But in the Oct. 9 vice-presidential debate, Jack Kemp rejected the same invitation from Lehrer and, to the pundits' dismay, declared it "beneath" Dole.
     Having sold out their anti-mudslinging moral posture for a nastier and more exciting contest, the pundits found themselves with neither. The low road at this point would have been to lash out at Dole out of shame, since Dole and Kemp had proven themselves more honorable than their moral judges in the pundit class. The even lower road, which the pundits took instead, was to lack any sense of shame and to assert that Dole, not they, should be ashamed by his failure to meet the only standard that really counts: doing whatever it takes to win.
     No flip-flop by Dole or Clinton has been as spectacular as the pundits' about-face on the propriety of negative campaigning. Ted Koppel reminded his fellow critics of negativism: "Be careful what you wish for--you may get it." Legions of commentators declared civility a political vice. "Let's bring back acrimony!" pleaded the Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson. Maureen Dowd longed openly for the exquisitely nasty Dole of 1988. R.W. Apple defended the New York Times' scant election coverage by dismissing the race as "boring." Sam Donaldson admonished the Dole camp: "To sit back and say, 'Well, we're just going to sit here and talk issues,' is the road to defeat."
     The negativism debate segued gracefully into a discussion of Dole's legacy and burial arrangements. In Thursday's Nightline interview, Ted Koppel suggested that Dole might prefer to "lose as a gentleman," and Dole replied, "Whatever happens, I want to be at peace with myself when it's over." Friday's New York Times spoke of Dole's "place in history" as an honorable loser alongside Walter Mondale. Terminal-diagnosis code word of the week: "dignity." Chat shows trumpeted the covers of Newsweek ("Is It Over?") and the Weekly Standard ("Can We Get This Election Over With Already?"). Conservatives mustered no confidence that the new Clinton scandal (involving campaign money from Indonesian businessmen) would attract attention or change people's votes.
     The VP debate: The pre-debate hype was that Gore and Kemp would relieve the boredom of 1996 by supplying a foretaste of a rip-roaring presidential contest in 2000. The post-debate lament was that Gore and Kemp would multiply the next four weeks of boredom into four more years of the same. Gore was declared robotic, but Kemp was declared incoherent and therefore the loser. Pundits consoled themselves with the hope that Kemp's performance was bad enough to cost him the nomination in 2000 and spare them the attendant boredom. The New York Times called it "an earnest wonkfest." Half-cynics said the debate wouldn't change any votes. Total cynics said it wouldn't have changed votes even if it had been lively, since nobody cares about the vice presidency. The juiciest topic of discussion was the Dole camp's anger at Kemp for failing to do Dole's dirty work--thereby forcing Dole to do it himself.
     Recriminations: "Let Republicans begin their recriminations," decreed George Will, as the traditional post-election bloodbath within the losing party commenced a month early. Pundits are delighted that Dole is being usurped as party leader (by Kemp and campaign vice chairman Bill Bennett) and bad-mouthed by anonymous Republicans and his own aides, while Dole loyalists are firing back at Republican critics (calling Bill Kristol the "first rat"), allies (threatening to boot Bennett off the campaign), and congressional Republicans (for collaborating with Clinton at Dole's expense).
     Congress: This week's analysis pieces focused on organized labor's ads against Republican candidates in swing districts. Paul Gigot faulted GOP chairman Haley Barbour for hoarding the party's money instead of challenging the labor ads: The New York Times' Adam Clymer reported widespread damage to Republicans from the ads and quoted various projections: a) Speaker Gingrich's estimate of the Democrats' takeover odds at 5-1 (up from 10-1); b) congressional archpundit Charlie Cook's prediction that the parties will end up fewer than 10 seats apart in the House; and c) a calculation by "academic experts" that a double-digit win for Clinton would probably give the Democrats a House majority.

--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 10/18/96:

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Senate Gain: 24.0, 0.7 from yesterday Senate Hold: 60.8, 1.3 from yesterday Senate Lose: 17.1, 0.5 from yesterday

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House Gain: 9.0, 0.8 from yesterday House Hold: 62.1, 0.2 from yesterday House Lose: 29.9, 1 from yesterday

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Congressional Pundits' Index: as of 10/14/96

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Senate Gain: 15, 3 from last week Senate Hold: 63, 2 from last week Senate Lose: 22, 1 from last week

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House Gain: 3, 1 from last week House Hold: 67, 3 from last week House Lose: 30, 4 from last week

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