Pundits analyze the elections; we analyze the pundits.
Oct. 1 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 10/4/96
Clinton: 87.4, 1.1 from yesterday Dole: 12.7, unchanged from yesterday
Pundits' Index: as of 9/30/96
Clinton: 92, 1 from last week Dole: 8, 1 from last week Perot: off the pie chart
Even junk stock is worth buying at a below-junk price. At midweek, the pundits were still kicking Bob Dole's corpse (this time the boots belonged to R.W. Apple and Maureen Dowd), and Dole's stock sank below a dime in the Iowa market. But that price was low enough to attract scavengers ("If Bob Dole were a stock, I would be buying the hell out of it," advised the WashingtonPost's Jim Glassman. It is a stock, dummy!), and their purchases pushed Dole's stock back up to 15 cents. Investors also were encouraged, no doubt, by the momentary shrinkage of Clinton's lead in the CNN tracking poll, from 20 points to 9.
     The shift in the CNN numbers prompted wishful conservatives such as Glassman (who had just lectured against trusting polls that showed Dole far behind) to hail the CNN numbers as evidence of a Dole comeback. On the other hand, cynics such as Charles Krauthammer and Carl Rowan inferred that the poll must be wrong because Dole was a basket case and couldn't possibly be gaining support. The cynics were largely vindicated the next day, when new CNN numbers pushed the margin back up to 14 points. Wise old hands such as Jack Germond and Bob Novak ignored the fluctuating margin and noted that Dole's percentage of the vote remains steadily below 40. Even Republican mouthpieces couldn't feign confidence. Dole's convention keynote speaker, Rep. Susan Molinari, had to be corrected during a chat show for talking about November "when Clinton gets re-elected."
     Israel: The mayhem and massacre in Israel didn't even lead the big-league chat shows. Pundits agreed that as long as Clinton labors visibly to bring Netanyahu and Arafat together to resolve their differences, he can't lose (since he won't take the blame for their failure) and Dole can't win (since he must support the president). The only problem was that Clinton's efforts to stop the bloodshed will cut into his debate-preparation time.
     Debates: Pundits had great sport with the image of Dole holed up in his Florida condo, cramming for the Oct. 6 face-off instead of campaigning or even going outside to speak to reporters. Still, contrarian arguments dominated the week: Clinton is prone to defensiveness and quibbling about details; Dole can contrast his own plain-spokenness with Clinton's slickness; the press, desperate for a close race, will bend over backward to portray Dole as the winner; and expectations of Dole's performance are so low that he'll automatically surpass them. Self-hating pundits predicted that lopsided polls and scant election coverage by bored reporters would discourage voters from even watching the debates.
     The L-word: Pundits who mistook Dole's spike in the CNN poll for a comeback credited it to his theme of the week--denouncing Clinton as a devout "liberal." Most right-leaners had trouble swallowing this line however, having spent the last two months portraying Clinton as a conservative in order to spin his re-election as a mandate for their ideas. Skeptics pointed out that Dole was contradicting his prior argument that Clinton has no convictions. Contempt for Dole's hurling of the L-word accompanied contempt for Clinton's repudiation of it.
     The economy: Analysts deemed Clinton the obvious beneficiary of new data showing a rise in median family income and a decline in poverty, as well as of the Federal Reserve's decision not to raise interest rates. Pundits theorized that favorable economic data have now reached a "critical mass" that is finally persuading voters that the country is on the right track, and that they are better off than they were four years ago. Conservative commentators groused that the rising economic tide isn't lifting middle-class wages. Liberals chuckled that they used to resort to the same futile complaint when the GOP held the White House. Everyone agreed that the Fed will raise interest rates after the election.
     Congress: As takeover hysteria wanes, the Democrats' congressional stock is sinking in the Iowa market. The price of a single-share wager on Democratic control of the House slid from 40 to 28 cents, while an equivalent wager in the Senate tumbled from 23 to 14 cents. Meanwhile, the pundits derided congressional Republicans for caving in to liberal demands in the session's final days. Favorite examples included spending billions extra on education, softening immigration reforms, and passing Ted Kennedy's health-insurance bill. (George Will and others suggested that GOP candidates could still raise the specter of "Chairman Kennedy" to scare Republican voters into turning out at the polls.) Shamelessly recycled cliché of the week: "In like lions, out like lambs." Pundits who had called the Republicans suckers for shutting down the government a year ago called them wimps for refusing to do so this year.
     Gingrich: Even conservatives agreed that the House Ethics Committee's decision to expand its investigation of Newt was "very serious" and "ominous." The pundits predicted that it would help Democrats focus the election on the unpopular speaker. Half-cynics reasoned that voters can't comprehend the financial allegations against Gingrich, but could easily comprehend the charge that Gingrich lied to the committee. Total cynics replied that Clinton's cakewalk to re-election proves that voters can't comprehend lying, either. Chat shows percolated with speculation as to when and how Gingrich would be ousted. The consensus was that he would probably keep his seat in November but would face a challenge to his leadership if the GOP lost the House; and if the GOP kept the House, the ethics probe would probably bring him down. "He's a goner," said Al Hunt. Liberals waxed sentimental as they chiseled his epitaph. "You can see him in his office there, with his empire in ruins, the flames licking around his feet," mused Evan Thomas. Right-leaners were less romantic, arguing that Gingrich had outlived his usefulness to the GOP and was being destroyed the same way he had destroyed former Speaker Jim Wright.

--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 10/4/96:

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Senate Gain: 30.3, 0.7 from yesterday Senate Hold: 58.1, 0.8 from yesterday Senate Lose: 12.2, 0.2 from yesterday

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House Gain: 18.4, 0.1 from yesterday House Hold: 55.9, 1 from yesterday House Lose: 26.9, 0.1 from yesterday

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Congressional Pundits' Index: as of 9/30/96

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Senate Gain: 22, 2 from last week Senate Hold: 65, 7 from last week Senate Lose: 13, 9 from last week

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House Gain: 5, 1 from last week House Hold: 72, 3 from last week House Lose: 23, 4 from last week

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