Pundits analyze the elections; we analyze the pundits.
Oct. 8 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 10/11/96
Clinton: 88, 0.9 from yesterday Dole: 10, 1 from yesterday
Pundits' Index: as of 10/7/96
Clinton: 92, unchanged from last week
Dole: 8, unchanged from last week
Perot: a tiny sucking sound
Last week, baseball pundits criticized Roberto Alomar for spitting on an antagonist during a game. This week, political pundits criticized Bob Dole for failing to spatter Bill Clinton in their first debate. The debate was hyped throughout the preceding week as Dole's "last, best chance" to turn the race around--even as several commentators, having declared the election over, insisted that voters wouldn't watch the debate because they've been convinced the election is over. Pessimists said viewers would forsake the debate for football. Optimists said viewers would forsake it for baseball.
     In Sunday night's initial post-debate chatter, network anchors bent over backward to say nice things about Dole's surprising niceness. But it took less than half an hour of pundit-huddling to yield a consensus that Dole had played defense when he needed to play offense, that he had failed to maul Clinton. Instant post-debate polls, trotted out apologetically and dismissively by Sunday night's anchors, were declared conclusive by Monday morning's talking heads. Dole was pronounced the loser. In the Iowa market, the debate produced the third-heaviest trading day in Clinton's stock. Neither candidate's price rose or fell sharply, but shares of a Republican gain in the House lost nearly half their value, while shares of a Democratic Senate takeover climbed sharply in record trading.
     Pundits spent the weekend before the debate exhorting Dole "to throw a major brushback pitch" and "nail the jello of the Clinton candidacy to the wall." When he disappointed them, they cried fair. Several sniffed that Dole was letting his fear of looking like a hatchet man get in the way of his behaving like a hatchet man. Dole's restraint might be "admirable," conceded Bill Kristol, but his only hope was "to scare people about a Clinton second term or make the case that Clinton's not fit to be president." George Will wondered why Dole had refused to swing at Jim Lehrer's "hanging curveball on the character question." Cokie Roberts insisted that "a debate requires attacking." Eleanor Clift said Dole would have to take off the gloves in the second debate. A frustrated Dole spokesman pointed out that pundits would have shredded Dole if he had taken their advice and attacked Clinton. Some commentators suggested the debate was too substantive. Peter Jennings asked Al Gore whether Clinton had been "a bit thick in issues."
     Post-debate spin confounded pre-debate spin in several respects. Pre-debate: Dole must make his tax cut the center of attention. Post-debate: Dole's tax cut gave Clinton an easy target. Pre-debate: If the debate is a draw, Dole wins, because he's the underdog. Post-debate: The debate was a draw, so Clinton wins, because he's ahead. ("Bill Clinton's lead is starting to freeze," explained Kevin Phillips.) Pre-debate: Clinton must keep his notorious temper under control. Post-debate: Clinton failed to show enough passion.
     Middle East summit: Everyone agreed that Clinton looked presidential and squashed Dole by keeping his sound bites off the tube for a week. Conservatives acknowledged that Dole looked jealous and surly when he criticized Clinton's management of the summit. Liberals claimed Clinton had taken a big political risk; conservatives disagreed. Easy graders said Clinton was coddling Netanyahu to endear himself to American Jews. Hard graders said Jews found the coddling excessive. A few commentators observed that Clinton's politically calculated, spineless deference to Netanyahu was exceeded only by Dole's.
     Congressional adjournment: More bad news for Dole. Pundits noted that Clinton can celebrate the many accomplishments of Congress' final weeks; that several issues that might have hurt him have now been addressed and taken off the election agenda; and that the Republican Senate majority leader is getting things done, now that Dole's out of the job.
     Congress: Pundits who counted on the GOP to survive a Clinton tide now worry that it can't survive a Clinton tidal wave. (Liberals gleefully pointed out that North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was thwarting Dole by touting Clinton as a standard of reasonableness in his own re-election campaign.) This week's gymnastics prize goes to Chris Matthews for arguing that Democrats are better off losing the House in 1996 so they can win it back in 1998. (Not dissimilar, of course, to what S
LATE's own Jacob Weisberg argued last week.) Pundits still think Democrats won't win reliable control of the House, but the rationale has shifted from quantity to quality. The old theory was that Democrats wouldn't win enough seats. The new theory is that the Democrats who pick up new seats will do so in suburban swing districts and will, therefore, be moderate and independent.

--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 10/11/96:

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Senate Gain: 26.8, 0.3 from yesterday Senate Hold: 58.1, 0.1 from yesterday Senate Lose: 16, 1.6 from yesterday

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House Gain: 10.2, 3.5 from yesterday House Hold: 60.4, 0.4 from yesterday House Lose: 28.2, 0.5 from yesterday

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Congressional Pundits' Index: as of 10/7/96

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Senate Gain: 18, 4 from last week Senate Hold: 61, 4 from last week Senate Lose: 21, 8 from last week

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House Gain: 4, 1 from last week House Hold: 70, 2 from last week House Lose: 26, 3 from last week