The pundit class faces an interesting challenge. My reading is that almost everyone who follows politics thinks that Mitt Romney has the Republican nomination in the bag — or, in the usual parlance, “it’s his to lose.” There are very good reasons to reach this conclusion: The abrupt collapse of Rick Perry’s poll standings, the fact that Herman Cain is unlikely to prevail over the long run — his 9-9-9 plan is falling apart under scrutiny — and the failure of anyone else (including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman) to emerge as an alternative.
And, yes, Romney has been a good debate performer and has run (to use the popular and accurate word) a disciplined campaign.
But every pundit knows that Washington political observers are notoriously wrong, especially when they operate as a pack. So which way do you hedge? By standing up for the conventional wisdom or by pointing to its weaknesses?
Two very good pieces this morning illustrate the two approaches. Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker have an article in the New York Times that runs (in the print edition) under the headline “A Front-Runner, but the Race is Long.” And Gerald Seib, in his Wall Street Journal column, goes the other way: “Romney Support Broader Than It Seems.” An interesting piece of data from the Seib piece: The Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll gave voters a two-way choice between Romney and Perry. The result: Romney, 54 percent, Perry, 39 percent. I agree with Jerry that this is one of the more significant numbers we have seen and that it’s a very good sign for Romney. Still, Zeleny and Parkey make the proper hedging point: that “early front-runners have found their leads to be ephemeral.”
And in commenting on tonight’s debate in Las Vegas, Dan Balz makes another essential point along these lines in The Post: that the entire race so far has been shaped by debates, which may prove less important than they now seem. Dan observes:
Not everyone agrees that the debates have greatly influenced the GOP race. They argue that the contest is so fluid that, by the time the primaries and caucuses begin, the debates may be remembered more for shaping the commentary than for influencing the ultimate outcome.
Indeed, which leads me to my own hedge: All the political logic says that, well, this is now Romney’s race to lose. I just can’t believe that (1) it’s over this early or (2) that the entire pundit class (myself included) can be right in pegging Romney as the winner already.
And thus, a dissenting view from Henry Schleifer, one of my students at Georgetown University. In a post on the Georgetown Public Policy Review Web site, he cites research on Perry’s past campaigns to argue that the bettors at Intrade are wrong to give Perry only a 10 percent chance of winning the nomination. Schleifer makes a lot of interesting points, but here are his conclusions. (And “unearned media” is campaign talk for advertising.):
Unearned media is only valuable late in the game. The professors’ research found that the benefits of television advertisements dissipated after one week, and that direct mail was ineffective all together. So the Perry campaign believes in saving all their resources until a last minute, huge television ad buy rather than trying to combat the media narrative by wasting money on ads before they drive any votes. This strategy lends itself to a last minute rise in the polls, rather than peaking too early.
All these lessons make the Perry campaign look artificially weaker in the polls than they plan to be on Election Day. The plan for Governor Perry is to peak in the year of the election and not the year before (see Fred Thompson).
This, he concludes, means that Perry “may, at the very least, have a lot better chance than the 10 % that the markets are giving him of winning the Republican nomination for President in 2012.” So remember Schleifer’s dissent if Perry somehow gets back into contention. And note that Schleifer has already joined the pundit class: his careful use of the word “may” proves he’s a pro.