I am less sure than many observers that Rick Perry will sweep aside all the other Republican candidates and march triumphantly to a Presidential nomination. A national campaign is an inferno to which no state-level campaign compares, and many people who look composed and powerful in their own neighborhood wilt or burst into flames at the next level. Further, even if Perry can perform in the national spotlight, the candidates in “Governor Perry’s space” (Bachmann, Santorum) may ace each other out and let front runner Mitt Romney skate home.

That said, Governor Perry has a huge advantage over Mitt Romney in that he clearly believes certain things and says so in a simple, declarative fashion. You don’t see this so much in Europe, but in the U.S., there is a non-negligible proportion of the electorate who says “I don’t agree with him, but I’m gonna support him because I know where he stands”.

I have long wondered why this is so, as it doesn’t seem logical on its face. Once you know for sure that a candidate disagrees with you, why wouldn’t you oppose him/her vigorously? And in a democracy, why aren’t candidates who adopt a consultative style and gather information before making up their mind prized?

I suspect the phenomenon has less to do with positive inferences about candidates who clearly believe something than it does negative inferences about those who, like Romney, appear to want to take the public pulse before they take a position. That is, it would be a disadvantage for a candidate to clearly believe something that voters didn’t like if s/he were running against someone who clearly believed something that voters did like. But that often isn’t the situation: In my lifetime, I have seen many races where a “straight-shooting, knows what he thinks and doesn’t need any advice” conservative clobbers a progressive who wants to “listen to all sides and bring people together”.

I suspect that many American voters, rather than liking the idea that a candidate wants to hear what they think and represent their views as President, make one of two inferences about candidates like Romney. (1) The candidate is a liar, he really believes certain things strongly and is covering them up for personal advantage, or, (2) The candidate is weak, even unmanly. He needs someone to tell him what to think…therefore he can’t lead.

I suspect the Republican nomination will come down to one of the 4 “believers” and Romney. Whether it’s Perry or another of them, Romney may in the end not be able to defeat a believer. If Romney does pull it out, the fascinating thing will be to see if President Obama goes for the “believer believing” vote and lays out an uncompromising, clear vision of what he thinks and where he wants the country to go.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys