State of the White House Race Notes

I’ve been saying at various places that I don’t think Romney is done for, and I still don’t think that Newt is a plausible candidate. Just to put some clarifications about what I’m thinking overall in the same place, plus some of things I haven’t followed up on…

No, I haven’t ruled out Rick Perry yet. He’s run an awful campaign, and campaigns matter a lot in primary elections. Maybe it really is his back; maybe Kevin Drum was right all along and Perry is just too stupid. No idea, but it sure has been a terrible campaign. Nevertheless, I’m still where I’ve been all along: there’s at least a 90 percent chance, and probably around 98 percent, that the winner will be a mainstream conservative with conventional credentials, and the only two remaining who fit that are Romney and Perry. What I used to say, including when Perry was surging, was that I had no idea how to apportion that 98 percent between the two of them; what I’ve been saying now for the last few weeks is that obviously Romney is ahead. But I haven’t tried to break that down into odds because I really don’t know how to calculate it.

Granted, this is basically what I said about Pawlenty as his campaign was dissipating. So make of it what you will…I guess I’ll say that I think both Romney (at 50 percent) and Perry (at 2 percent) are clear buys to me at Intrade right now.

I need to also answer Neil Sinhababu’s Newt-optimist post* which cleverly uses me against myself to make the case for Newt. He notes that I’ve argued in the past that the GOP entertainment division (Rush, Fox News, everyone hawking books) creates perverse incentives because they’re probably better off financially with a Democrat in the White House. If that’s so, why shouldn’t they support Newt?

If that were the case, and I do think it’s depressingly plausible, I think we would be seeing a little more consistent support for Newt from the fringier politicians than we’ve seen so far (indeed, they would have jumped on the Bachmann or Cain bandwagon earlier, too). I guess that while I do think there’s some effect here, the way it’s working out is on issue positions. Put it this way: in normal parties there’s tension between purists who want positions that are poison in the general election, and pragmatists who just want to win; the conservative marketplace (I think that’s my brother’s phrase) tilts the scales towards the purists. It can do that with candidates, too, but I guess I just don’t buy that the incentives wind up dictating a Bachmann, Cain, or Gingrich nomination. After all, there are still a lot of pols that just want to win elections, and campaign and governing professionals and party-aligned interest groups who also would rather win. I think it might help explain why joke candidates have displaced mediocre non-joke candidates as the high-profile losers, but I think that’s all.

Naturally, however, in the unlikely even that they do nominate Newt, I’ll be happy to have anyone make the argument that I called it. and ignore the dozens of blog posts and columns and tweets and whatever in which I explicitly said the opposite. I am taking credit for calling (along with Josh Putnam and others) that Romney would contest Iowa.

One more thing that came up in comments the other day that I want to be clear about. When I say that party actors generally determine nominations, I’m very much not saying that “insiders” or “the establishment” do so; lots of party actors, certainly including activists but also including even some elected officials, don’t think of themselves that way and don’t coordinate with those they believe are the “establishment.” Also: I not only believe that nominations do work that way, but I believe that they should work that way, but only on the condition that parties are internally democratic in some real sense and are highly permeable. Under those conditions, I think nominations in which party actors play the dominant role are more democratic than those in which the voters make choices without party intermediation. I don’t believe that about general elections because the presence of partisan cues makes it easy for voters to be sufficiently informed that they can make reasonable choices, and because the democratic stakes are different for elections compared to nominations.

*And a chance to make my vocabulary clear: candidate “optimists” are those who think the candidate will win or do well; candidate pessimists are those who think the candidate will lose or do badly. Doesn’t imply anything else about what one thinks about the candidate.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.